Our outreach last night was a little quieter than usual, but this was to be expected. We had to cancel our scheduled outreach on Thursday as we knew that with the freezing temperatures, many rough sleepers would have access to the temporary shelters that open when temperatures are below freezing.
We received lots of new donations which meant we were able to give out plenty of socks, underwear and wet wipes to those we encountered on our route from Kings Cross to Oxford Street. We served a chicken noodle soup with a naan bread - prepared by one of our fabulous volunteers, Ghazal.
With how bitterly cold it has been over the past week, we were asking those we met how they had coped and whether they had been able to get into one of these shelters. Fortunately, nearly everyone that we met and spoke to had been able to get into a shelter and escape the freezing temperatures for at least a night or two.
Whilst we commend the Mayor’s initiative to open extra shelters during severe weather, we also have two very large concerns. Firstly, we find it very difficult to comprehend that as soon as the temperature gets above 0, these people are forced back onto the streets. Whilst the snow may have disappeared, it is still extremely cold outside. The tragic story of Ben who lost his life last week after sleeping out in the freezing cold proves just how deadly rough sleeping can be. One of the stories which shocked us was that of a gentleman we met at Oxford Circus: he told us that whilst he was able to stay in a shelter for one night this week, on those nights he wasn’t able to, he simply walked around all night to keep warm.
There should be no-one sleeping outside, regardless of how ‘mild’ the temperatures are. No-one should have to sleep rough, period.
We also heard stories of some of the dirty conditions that exist in these shelters, such as uncleaned floors. One of our regulars, who has been sleeping rough for 34 years spoke of how he would rather sleep outside than sleep in one of these shelters, precisely because of the filthy conditions in which they are expected to be grateful to sleep in. Whilst the street link initiative is a positive measure in the right direction, it feels to us that there is are fundamental flaws and a sense of humanity which is lacking.
Week in, week out, we hear harrowing stories of how people’s lives have been turned upside-down and meet incredibly vulnerable people whom have no-one to turn to. Last night we met a lady who was in tears, without a sleeping bag, coat or other belongings. We were able to get her some food and a drink and then one of our volunteers walked her to the nearest shelter and ensured she had a bed for the night.
Each week we are reminded of why we must not be complacent nor even mildly satisfied with the current strategy on homelessness. Too many people are being systematically failed by our government and forced to live in the most terrifying and uncertain conditions. Someone must be held responsible for ensuring the safety of vulnerable people on our streets and a coherent strategy must be produced to end the crisis in our streets.