“The amount of homeless people in this area is horrendous”

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I recently did a workshop at the 999 Club to speak about homelessness, how some of the homeless navigate Deptford and how they feel about the changes happening in the area. The 999 Club in Deptford is a charity that provides essential services for homeless people or people that are vulnerably housed in Lewisham and South London. Service users can take a shower, have breakfast, see a health professional, and stay in the Night Shelter, where they also get a hot meal. The 999 Club recently became well known for introducing 10 sleeping pods for their night shelter in December 2018, which means that instead of sleeping on a mattress in a shared open space, people can sleep in a bed in a little pod that can be closed off with a curtain. This gives the service user privacy and their own space. Service users can also take part in activities such as First Aid training, IT courses and other training, and can get help with finding work. As well as this, they can meet with an Advice and Support Worker to get help with accessing benefits, managing finances, challenging eviction and finding accommodation.

DSC_0374The sleeping pods at the night shelter

Homelessness has increased steadily over the past decade, with Lewisham being in one of the worst-faring boroughs in England. There are currently 2,000 households in Lewisham that are either sleeping rough or are in temporary accommodation. Government welfare policies and the aggressive housing market have directly contributed to this homeless crisis, leaving already vulnerable people to fend for themselves. Because of this, demand and provision at the 999 Club, which was established 25 years ago, has increased, with the Night Shelter running at full capacity and a waiting list. For more information, please visit: 999club.org

When I arrive for the workshop in the morning, the communal space is packed with people drinking tea, chatting, using the computers or just sitting in a warm place. Zisca, the Learning Coordinator, has already prepared a table and Paul, Nick and Jermaine are sitting there waiting for me. Liliana, Christiana and Bibiche, who were doing their work practice as part of their Social Care and Health Studies at the time, join the discussions. Dalair, another service user, joins the conversation later. We begin the workshop by highlighting on a Deptford map the places that are of importance to the three men before we go on to talk about memories of Deptford, how the men ended up homeless, how they navigate Deptford and its surroundings, and the impact of homelessness on mental health. We also talk about the importance of places like the 999 Club and how the 999 Club in particular has helped the four men deal with their homelessness. Each person’s story is different, however, one thing all agree on: homelessness can happen to anyone!

Workshop at the 999Club. Photos: Bibiche Alembene

DSC_0363Nick making notes during the workshop. Photo: Anita Strasser

Nick became homeless due to family issues. He was living with his son and daughter-in-law, who decided to divorce his son. Supporting his son in every way, also financially, Nick ended up not only losing all his money, but also his home and his job. Before seeking help from the council, Nick slept in his car for 2 weeks. When he finally went to the council, he was referred to the 999 Club. “I was lucky”, he says, “during the day I was here [the communal space] and during the night I was in the night shelter – so it was alright for me. It’s great that once you’re referred to this night shelter, you don’t have to apply daily to get a place; you’re here until they’ve found you somewhere. I was here for 10 weeks before I got a place, and now I’ve got my own room in a house and it’s brilliant. I can just walk in and shut the door behind me, it’s quite an amazing feeling. Anyone now who wants to see me, they have to knock on my door – that’s massive!” Nick can’t express enough praise and gratitude to the people of the 999 Club. “The perseverance of people working at the 999 Club helps people get a home again. Everyone who is in the night shelter ends up with somewhere to live eventually. They are brilliant!” Read more about Nick’s story here by clicking on this text.

Nick mapNick’s map of places in Deptford accessible to him

Looking at Nick’s map (above), I see that he has only highlighted the Albany and Deptford Lounge. This is because these are the only places where he feel he can go. “When you’re homeless, you travel from library to library because the thing to do when you’re in a homeless situation is trying to avoid boredom. I start my day coming to the 999 Club before I walk around to the Albany or Deptford Library to do some reading or watch a film. Sometimes I go to Lewisham or Peckham Library, but Deptford Lounge is the most convenient and the staff in there are very understanding. You can’t go to sleep of course but you can stay there all day if you want. You can also go to the park but not when it’s raining and cold.” With libraries being under threat in the borough of Lewisham, I ask Nick what it would mean if Deptford Lounge were to close. He says that “it would be disastrous for the area and for homeless people.” Nick explains that when you’re homeless, it’s not just about not having a home but also about not having any money to spend. This means that it is important to have local spaces where homeless people can go as they often cannot afford the bus fare to go to a free museum elsewhere for example. “A lot of us haven’t got any money but most things cost you something. I’m not saying transport should be free but there should be heavily reduced bus fares, not just for the homeless but also for people who don’t earn much, so that they can get around as well.”

Nick has only been in Deptford for a couple of years but already he thinks that Deptford is going to become a central place for the homeless. “The amount of homeless people in this area is already horrendous and it’s only getting more. The council is so overstretched that if you go there and report that you are a single man who is homeless, they just shrug their shoulders.” For Nick, the reason for this crisis is Right to Buy, which, in his opinion, was misused, and the fact that the money was not put back into building new social homes. Nick is also concerned about the amount of betting shops and thinks this should be illegal as these shops exploit poor people by giving them false hope.

In the end, we get talking about mental health issues – a huge problem for homeless people, including Nick who hasn’t always felt strong enough to deal with his difficult situation. Being homeless and out of work for the first time in his life, he felt ashamed, ashamed of his situation and having to ask for help. He also struggles with the general perception of homeless people as drug addicts or alcoholics and never as people who have suffered misfortune. He feels much more capable now that he has had support and come out the other side, but he has first-hand experience of what it means to be put on a long waiting list to get help with issues that actually need immediate attention. Being housed again was a big first step to help him cope with his situation but he still has a long road ahead of him. “Not everybody is as lucky as me to be sent to the 999 Club and to get my own place in just 10 weeks”, he says. But Nick is also incredibly pro-active and has joined many courses, workshops and training sessions. He has recently completed First Aid Training and he’s doing everything he can to bring his life back on track.

DSC_0343Workshop at the 999Club. Photo: Bibiche Alembene

Paul has also experienced severe mental health issues during his 15 years of being homeless, suffering major nervous breakdowns. Paul grew up in Deptford and became homeless after he returned from being in the army. At the time, a council only had to rehouse you if you had a local connection. As Paul had been away for a long time, he was deemed to have lost this connection and so it wasn’t the council’s duty to rehouse him. “The reason why I couldn’t get housed was because I hadn’t lived down here [Deptford] for so long so they couldn’t find me anywhere to live. They changed that legislation and today it’s possible to be referred to another council, but it’s still like warfare”, he says. Paul has lived in numerous house-shares and now lives in a garage in Camberwell. He comes to the 999 Club every day and loves walking around Deptford. Deptford is where his heart is and walking around helps him take his mind off negative things. He also takes advantage of the support that is provided for people with mental health issues.

Paul notesPaul’s drawing of his mind

Paul has many memories of Deptford, good and bad, and he also has strong views about Deptford today. Here he shares some of his experience with us. “I remember the legendary music parties in the Crypt at St Paul’s, actually I was 14 then so wasn’t supposed to be there but we looked older so could get in. We were goths at the time and just loved those parties. In the 80s, there were the Irish, the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, West Indies, that’s what made it so interesting, and the parties got a lot of us together, we were less segregated. You just knew that if you got into certain areas, like down by Millwall or the river you’re gonna get grief. We could never walk down by the river because we knew we’d get beaten up by skinheads. You really had to be able to run in those days, especially down by the river because you were so far from anywhere. Now you can walk down the river without fear, no-one’s gonna attack you. Because I grew up here, I know so many people now, people that used to get up to bad stuff, but amongst all that stuff, we just got on so well amongst ourselves. I also remember that everybody learnt a different trade and you often got a job with someone your dad knew. This is how people got into work. I don’t see such a great spirit of community these days. I mean the people who run the new businesses, especially the coffee shops, why don’t they go into local schools and offer work experiences for young local kids? We have a lot of young people here in the area and there’s a lot that could be done for them. I like the new businesses and I’m sure the people work hard but they don’t engage enough with the local community and often after a few years, they sell on and move out. I think that businesses should provide opportunities for local young people. Work experience for a local young person could give them a chance in life, set them on their way.”

Generally, Paul really likes the changes Deptford has undergone in the last decades. He thinks it looks much better, has better transport connections, and he can walk around freely without experiencing the racism that was rife in the 80s. He also wouldn’t be too upset if Deptford Market were to disappear as he used to hate being ‘dragged’ through it all the time when he was a kid. For him, the area has a lot of potential which should be used to help young local kids. What he considers really sad is that the money from properties bought through Right to Buy years ago wasn’t put back to build more social homes, and that homeowners now make huge profits on these properties while simultaneously enjoying favourable tax laws. “Social Housing has been misused, leaving poor families with nowhere affordable to live.”

Paul says that finding a home for homeless people is obviously a priority but he thinks that this in itself does not solve all problems. In his experience, homelessness comes with a lot of other issues that are often ignored. “My own issue is mental health, I fall into a depression and have suicidal thoughts; other people need to feed their addictions. Housing is always put first but people need training in how to cope with life: paying bills, managing finance, getting back to work, how to survive basically. Many who manage to get rehoused, eventually fall back with their rent because they buy drugs or a 42inch TV screen. Then housing benefit gets cut and then the depression kicks in. And it doesn’t mean that if you then approach a centre you get help instantly. Centres are over-stretched and there is a long waiting list, especially for mental health issues. So, it’s good to do as much as you can from the beginning. There is lots of training out there, and the 999 Club offers lots of courses, but sometimes people seem too despondent to engage. They think once they’re housed, everything will be fine.”

Like Nick, Paul is very proactive and goes to Deptford Lounge to search for jobs on the internet. He does jobs here and there, whatever comes up, and manages to get by like this. Having been homeless for 15 years, Paul is very clued up on the services that are available. He says the beginning, when you don’t know what’s out there, is hard, but once you have all the information, you see that there are a lot of centres that help the homeless. In order to access them, however, you need to be able to walk a lot and far.

DSC_0338.JPGDuring the workshop at the 999Club. Photo: Bibiche Alembene

Dalair, father of two who has recently been housed after being homeless for some time, agrees with Paul, saying that the physical and mental wellbeing of homeless people and those on lower incomes should be a priority as this could help them get lifted out of dire situations more quickly. He benefited from group therapy and physical exercise, particularly walking. As he joined the group late in the day, he wrote a list (incomplete) of things that need to be considered – see below:

Del notes

Finally, Jermaine tells us his story, another reminder that homelessness can happen to anybody, even once very successful people. “I put my hands to all different kinds of things to make it in life – I did music, catering and before I came here [the 999 Club], I was a property developer. I worked really hard for 20 years and managed to buy myself a 6-bedroom house on a mortgage which I was paying all the time. I also took out a loan which needed paying back, but unfortunately, I had an accident and then things started to go wrong. I couldn’t work and pay back my loan so I approached the loan company because I should have been covered through PPI (Payment Protection Insurance) but then I was told I couldn’t claim for it because my work had been seasonal when I took out the loan. I argued if that was the reason, they couldn’t have signed me up in the first place as my work was seasonal then. But they refused and so I challenged them because I had paid for cover all those years. I then got sent from branch to branch and then the company in London went into liquidation. Then I found that they were working from Guernsey, but they have different rules there and so I found myself stuck with this loan. It’s been an ongoing battle. I have received 15 eviction notices from my house but so far, I have managed to save myself each time. Now they’ve gone to the High Courts to send in the bailiffs. Again, I applied to stay in my house and I won, but then I was told I had one month to try and sell the house. So I went to an estate agent and stupidly told them about my situation because they then tried to take advantage of me – they first only offered me £100,000 for a 6-bedroom house! Then they offered £200,000, and then £500,000. I mean there is a big difference!”

DSC_0336Jermaine and Paul during the workshop at the 999 Club. Photo: Bibiche Alembene

Jermaine is aware that if he gets this money, he’s very lucky because it is unusual to get this kind of money. “But I’ve worked so hard and it’s very hard in this country to get to where I was, and then it seemed like it was all just gonna get taken away from me for nothing and there’s not much I can do. The system isn’t working for me, I tried every single possible thing and still I’m just going to lose my home. I asked what I need to do to not lose my home, they said I need to pay £35,000, which I didn’t have but I tried to get a loan to pay it and when I found a company that would give me the loan, I was told I now needed to pay £68,000. So, within the space of a week it went up by £33,000. They are making it impossible for me to pay the money. I feel so hard done by! And to think how many other people experience the same!”

Jermaine admits that before this happened, he used to think that people hanging out in the 999 Club and other centres for the homeless were lazy, that homelessness was their choice and that they didn’t want to work. Through his own experience, however, he has realised that homelessness can happen to anyone and for all kinds of unjust reasons.

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In the end, Jermaine draws a map of his Deptford (he grew up here) and it very clearly emerges what kind of places have importance for him: places of gathering. Most places he highlights are from his youth, such as schools and playgrounds, Moonshot, the Albany, a Music Technology School on Edward Street and the market. He loved what is now the Richard MacVicar Adventure Playground on New King Street, where he attended wood workshops, painting classes and where he had a lot fun. He also has fond memories of Moonshot, where there were discos, basketball, tennis, ice-skating, days out and where he had his first date. He also remembers when his cousin got pulled out of the club by his ears by his father because they had stayed late. He also used to go to the Albany, where he did some shows as a performer, and finally, the Music Technology School, where you were sent when you were “a bit of a bad boy” (he laughs). Jermaine also worked for various places in the area and particularly remembers working for various stalls on the market, selling things like socks, ladies’ and men’s underwear, scarves, gloves, shoes and handbags. “I like thinking about those days, it makes me feel good”, he says at the end.

Jermaine notesJermaine’s map of Deptford

In conclusion we agree that it is important to remember that homelessness can happen to anyone and for a variety of reasons. We also agree that the sooner one asks for help, the sooner one might get out of it. Nick, Paul, Dalair and Jermaine, have all been very proactive in seeking help, but it is a long road to get back on track. In the end, Paul highlights that there are also a lot of hidden homeless people who do not come to these centres and that we need to reach out to them too. “There are a lot of hidden homeless women out there who are too afraid to ask for help. For them it is much harder to ask for help as there is always the potential to be abused, beaten and trafficked. You wouldn’t believe how many homeless women are out there! We need to reach out to them to get them access centres like the 999 Club.”

In the end, we have lunch together, chat some more and take a few pictures with Jermaine and Nick and the volunteers. Everybody else had left by then. Thank you to Nick, Paul, Jermaine and Dalair for participating and sharing your stories, thanks to Liliana, Christiana and Bibiche for helping, and thanks to Zisca for making this workshop possible.

Photos by Bibiche Alembene and Anita Strasser.