Shelters for the homeless usually have a high profile at Christmas – but how are they coping amid the pandemic? LAURA DAY spoke to Deptford’s 999 Club and the Greenwich Winter Night Shelter to see how they have had to adapt.
At this time of year, homeless shelters and charities would usually be taking in rough sleepers, ensuring a safe and warm night’s sleep. But this year, things are very different, and shelters have had to change their services.
The 999 Club offers a wraparound service for people experiencing homelessness in Lewisham borough. Located on Deptford Broadway, its day centre, The Gateway, offers advice and support, health and wellbeing checks and employability advice to rough sleepers and people needing housing assistance.
Ordinarily, the 999 Club also operates a night shelter, with its latest figures showing that between September 2018 and May 2019, it had provided emergency respite from the streets for 185 men and women. However in April this year, all that changed, and 999 Club was forced to close both its day centre and night shelter.
Funding for the 999 Club’s night shelter was redirected by Lewisham Council to fund two floating support workers. They support up to 50 people who have been taken into temporary accommodation at Miriam Lodge in Forest Hill under the government’s Everyone In scheme, which brings councils together with charities and hospitality venues to rehouse all homeless people, not just those in specific categories. The loss of funding meant the 999 Club’s trustees had to close the night shelter indefinitely.
“It’s very interesting times for a lot of organisations, especially for the 999 Club,” says Gülen Petty, the head of fundraising. “We’ve had to be very flexible and be guided by our clients’ needs more than ever because these are different times.”
Across the borough boundary, it is a similar story for Greenwich Winter Night Shelter (GWNS). With seven venues across the borough, the shelter provided beds each night of the week over winter for men and women. Guests would also receive a hot home-cooked meal and takeaway snacks, and could have a shower in three of the seven venues. But like the 999 Club, GWNS was forced to close early at the end of last winter as the pandemic came to the UK. During this year’s season, operations will be different.
With rough sleepers now housed temporarily under the Everyone In scheme, shelters aren’t receiving the usual referrals. Greenwich Council estimates there are 31 rough sleepers in temporary accommodation, 17 of which are from Everyone In. The town hall believes 14 people are sleeping rough.
Lakshan Saldin, one of GWNS’s trustees, says the night shelter usually dealt with people referred from the council and charitable partners. “We recognise the landscape has changed. In a typical season we would do 1,000 bed nights. Some people would be with us for one night or two nights, to three weeks.” It’s during this time that agencies are able to move guests into permanent accommodation. “Lots of those people are now within a system. We’ve had to change our model to do what we can somewhere else.”
Without a night shelter, GWNS has reassessed what help it can provide. As a result, the trustees have approved a food project run from Christ Church East Greenwich on Trafalgar Road three nights a week. The GWNS Food Project launched on 11 December, and offers a takeaway food service to those in need between 6.30pm and 8pm on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. “We’re going to open our arms and put them around as many people as we can,” says Lakshan.
Laskhan says the service is currently in a pilot phase until Christmas. “We’ll take the learnings and look at what more we can do, or change our offering into January going forwards.”
Back in Deptford, the 999 Club has been just as resourceful. Almost immediately after lockdown began, it secured funding to distribute mobile phones and tablets so staff could keep in contact with their clients every day. Gülen estimates between 50-60 phones were given to clients, and the charity has recently secured funding for about the same number again for further distribution. The 999 Club has also been handing out weekly food vouchers and travel cards, topping them up each week, and also plans to serve hot food from its centre for those in need on Christmas Day.
“When there’s very little security in life, especially for people who are vulnerable and rough sleeping, 999 Club was a focal point where they could meet people, come in, talk to their case worker, see other people who they may have not seen on the street for a while,” says Gülen, who adds the club could support up to 100 people in any given week. “It’s like a community of people they can trust and they’ll be able to get help that they need.”
The 999 Club’s day shelter reopened in October, and now operates on an appointment-only basis under Covid-secure restrictions. Gülen stresses the importance of the reopening of the day centre, as many of the 999 Club’s clients ended up in unfamiliar areas under Everybody In. “There’s huge uncertainty and a lot of fear,” she says. “Their mental health has struggled and our staff members were calling them daily and making sure they had everything they needed.”
Although the night shelter is closed, Gülen says the team have secured funding and are currently undertaking a feasibility study to reopen it.
“We have started looking to see if there are further opportunities to turn it into a Covid-safe space for people experiencing homelessness. We will have to make a decision on whether any of them are feasible for us to take on and if so, we will have to do a lot of fundraising.” The results are expected in January.
Like many charities, funding for the 999 Club and GWNS have been hard hit, with trusts, foundations and private donations now the main source of funding. “The biggest donation we get from people is time,” says Lakshan, adding that GWNS is always on the lookout for volunteers and donations. “It’s great to have so many people in the Greenwich community ready to do this.” In August, GWNS was given special recognition at Greenwich Council’s civic awards for its outstanding contribution to the social, economic and physical wellbeing of the borough.
Of course the closure of night shelters – a crucial beacon of hope for many people experiencing homelessness – looks like a disaster. But the 999 Club’s Gülen suggests that despite it all, and with charities doing their best in tough times, there has been a silver lining for homeless people during this terrible year.
“Before Covid-19, there would be hundreds of people on the street sleeping by the supermarket or cash points, and people would be walking over them to get to where they need to go. They were almost invisible. Now there’s hardly any rough sleepers on the streets, but they’re on the agenda more than they ever were. That’s actually a positive outcome from this terrible pandemic. People are talking more about looking to find a longer solution.”
This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
LAURA DAY is a freelance journalist specialising in health and wellbeing. She is based in Hither Green.
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