Help the Hungry: How our campaign is helping rough sleepers and homeless people

  • london
  • May 20, 2020
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From the outside, it is an average central London hotel. One of the hundreds of converted terrace houses in Victoria and South Kensington, which serve the masses of tourists that would descend on the capital in normal times.

But despite the room rates advertised by the front desk, the clientele of this hotel is today rather different. They are people who, until coronavirus hit, were homeless or rough sleepers.

They are also a testament to one of the greatest and largely unheralded achievements of the crisis.

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At the start of the lockdown, the capital’s authorities, in partnership with the charitable sector, launched a joint effort to take London’s homeless off the streets and out of danger. In less than a week, London was able to practically end rough sleeping.

Over the past few weeks, I was able to see for myself what exactly has happened. One charity on the front line, Thames Reach, invited me to see how they are operating during the time of coronavirus.

I joined one of its outreach teams, which still walks the streets looking for rough sleepers. I visited a hostel that continues to run for those with complex needs, and I entered the commercial hotel that it now runs.

Bill Tidnam, the charity’s CEO, explains that as the country went into lockdown, he and other organisations had to coordinate almost overnight to get London’s homeless housed – a task previously considered nigh on impossible.

The starting gun, he explains, was fired by the country’s homelessness czar, Dame Louise Casey. She had been brought back into government to lead a review on rough sleeping and found herself in a unique situation.

On 26 March, Casey emailed local authorities and homeless charities, calling on them to ensure rough sleepers were “inside and safe” with immediate effect.

The result was an operation to take over hotels empty as a result of the collapse of the tourism trade, and then for people to fan out across the city to inform the homeless.

“It all happened in a great hurry,” Tidnam recalls. “It was extremely difficult to start up such a new service, especially at a time when we were quite short of staff as people were self-isolating. But we did it.”

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Visiting one of the hotels that Thames Reach took over, it was clear how frenzied those first few days were.

Katherine Cowling had been running a day centre for the charity in Deptford when it had to close due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Within days she was preparing the organisation’s new hotel in west London, her laptop resting on the bed in one of the rooms as she worked.

Food, she says, was a major challenge as it took almost a week until regular deliveries. “I was just desperately using Uber Eats and JustEat,” she recalls. “There were days when I was here 12 hours straight.” By the end of last month, when I spent an evening with Tidnam and his outreach team in Croydon, areas that used to have a large number of people sleeping out each night were largely deserted. That evening we came across just two rough sleepers.

One, a young man called Kai, was begging outside the tram station. “There are normally 20 or 30 around here,” he tells me. “But they have been gone for the last couple of weeks.”

He had originally been part of the “Everyone In” strategy, given a place to stay, but was asked to leave due to his behaviour. That put him in a small minority. Some 4,000 people – the vast majority of the city’s most at-risk homeless – have had somewhere safe to see out the crisis. This is largely due to the actions of Casey.

One of those at Thames Reach’s west London hotel is Ancuta Moise. Born in Romania, and homeless after she lost her job, she had been in a shelter when she was moved to the hotel as the virus spread.

“It was so beautiful and so clean,” the 37-year-old tells me of her new accommodation as she proudly shows me her room. “I have my own bathroom and I feel protected here. There is fresh food. From the first moment I saw it I felt happy.”

Evgeny Lebedev speaks to Ancuta Moise in her hotel room (Lucy Young)

Homelessness is an issue on which The Independent has long been campaigning. The events of the last few months show what can be achieved.

The programme has not been perfect. It took time for specific hotels to be identified to house those with coronavirus symptoms, a particular problem for the homeless who often have recurrent coughs. Existing arrangements with many hotels are also due to expire in coming weeks.

But the key question now is what happens next. There can not be a return to business as usual.

My encounter with Ancuta remains at the forefront of my mind. A vase of flowers sat on a small table. On one of the twin beds she had rested her Bible which she had spent her time at the hotel reading. It wasn’t much, but it was home.

“My hope is to be able to train as a florist and work with flowers,” she tells me when I ask about her future. “That is what I hope will happen after I live here. It will be in the hands of God and Prime Minister Johnson to help all the people on the streets. I put myself in their hands.”

Our challenge is to give people like Ancuta a future after this crisis. We don’t need to imagine a city where no one sleeps rough; we’ve seen it. Now let’s think about how we can do it in the long term.

The Independent is encouraging readers to help groups that are trying to feed the hungry during the crisis – find out how you can help here. Follow this link to donate to our campaign in London, in partnership with the Evening Standard.

Evgeny Lebedev is a shareholder of The Independent and Evening Standard​