‘Nobody’s chosen to be here’: Stories from the winter night shelter

St Thomas Church Charlton-1
St Thomas’ Church hosts a winter night shelter for homeless people.

Charlton’s winter night shelter, at St Thomas’ Church on Woodland Terrace, opens its doors for the last time this evening. Since November, it has provided Friday night accommodation for homeless people as part of the seven-day Greenwich Winter Night Shelter network, whose programme for this year ends next week. Local Democracy Reporter TOM BULL met some of the shelter’s users, and the volunteers who help to run it.

Builders, chefs, and nurses are guests at the Greenwich Winter Night Shelter.

They are also rough sleepers.

The shelter has room for 15 of society’s most vulnerable to get a night’s rest. But more are waiting.

Volunteers are preparing for the “heart-breaking” final week knowing that the end brings uncertainty for clients and workers over where they will go next.

Guests, volunteers say, are people who haven’t chosen homelessness, they have fallen into it.

Their stories show the scale of rough sleeping in the country – one guest this year has been a student nurse, another a chef – one man last night needed a night’s sleep ahead of a job interview and had brought a shirt and trousers to be ironed by the volunteers.

‘No work, no money, no rent’

Rough sleeping in London has reached “inhumane levels”, one homeless builder told us last night.

The man, who didn’t want to be named, had his tools robbed nearly three weeks ago.

“No tools, no work – no work, no money, no rent. It’s simple ain’t it?” he said. He’s been sleeping rough for 16 nights, and this was his first time at the shelter.

“It’s been rough as f***. Last night was the worst. It’s so cold. You couldn’t sit down because you’d feel yourself freezing. You have to get up and walk – not a wink of sleep. If I was out tonight I don’t know what I would do.”

He knows that the shelter’s services are coming to an end, but he has no other choice but to take it up while he can.

“It’s inhumane how Britain is. It goes against human rights. If it wasn’t for here tonight, I’d be out there. These people should be given knighthoods.”

The shelter opened earlier than usual in this, its fifth year in operation, starting in November and working every night out of six different churches and a community centre.

One guest – who previously managed hotel kitchens – has got a job in a café during his stay. He had come over from South Africa in January looking for work and was pickpocketed at Waterloo station.

“I was sleeping rough, I had nowhere to go and I had no money. A woman walked past me and then came back. She asked how much it would be to get a night’s rest. I told her it was about £9, so she went and got me money –  she gave me a hundred quid. It was beyond belief.”

The volunteers said they worry about what happens once the project finishes. Come Wednesday, some guests will have found housing, but others will be back on the streets.

A council snapshot in November found there were seven people sleeping rough. Last night, all 15 beds were booked out.

Between playing pool with guests and organising dinner, volunteers found the time to say how important shelters are.

One co-ordinator, Jo, has been involved with the project from the start. She’s seen a big increase in take-up, putting it down to increased awareness – but said it’s surprising who comes through the doors.

“Nobody here has chosen to be homeless,” she said.

‘It has cost me my marriage’

Sat next to his bed for the night, a 43-year-old father of two said that without the shelter, he didn’t know where he would be.

He said he’s been rough sleeping for six years, and on the housing waiting list for three. He said the council provided a two-bedroom flat for him, his wife and two kids. His now 15-year-old daughter is still sharing a room with her mum, and he’s now on the streets.

“That’s the overcrowding that the Royal Borough of Greenwich can’t sort out,” he said. “It has cost me my marriage and I’ve ended up on the road.

“I’ve been sofa-surfing with friends, but I’ve exhausted everything I can. Absolutely, people don’t get the scale.”

The dad said he is in conversations with a housing officer for a plan to be put in place before the shelter closes.

“My fate is in their hands – I don’t know where I will go. Day to day it’s a challenge.”

Last year, the shelter had 30 different guests who stayed from between five and 85 nights. At least 20 were supported into some form of accommodation. Others either went back to the streets or had sorted another arrangement.

It’s estimated the hours put in by volunteers, at minimum wage, would be the equivalent of £66k.

94 rough sleepers in Greenwich borough

In Greenwich there were 94 different people thought to be sleeping rough over the course of last year.

Councillor Chris Kirby, cabinet member for housing, said that the council is currently reviewing its homelessness strategy.

He said: “We have an excellent track record of demonstrating the strength of working with partners to support homeless people and make the best use of our skills and resources. This includes a Vulnerable Adults Pathway, which provides housing-related support for ex-offenders and/or people with a substance misuse history.

“Official statistics show that rough sleeping in England rose by 169 per cent from 2010 to 2018, coinciding with when the coalition government came to power. We are doing all we can to help those sleeping rough in our borough.”

For more information about the night shelter, and how you can help, see our story from October.


LDRS logoTom Bull is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
See more about how The Charlton Champion uses LDRS content.

Greenwich Council set to sell The Heights land for private housing after only two attend consultation

The Heights
Greenwich Council plans to sell this land at The Heights for private housing

Greenwich Council can press ahead with the controversial sale of public land at The Heights despite concerns that only two residents attended consultation events.

The authority backtracked on its original proposals to sell off garage sites at the Orchard Eastate in Lewisham and Kidbrooke Park Close following protests from residents and councillors.

The plans sparked a backlash with neighbours concerned primarily about parking, and with elected officials over the use of a private developer – Pocket Living – instead of building council housing.

The council undertook a seven-week consultation before deciding to scrap two of the sales, but still wants to dispose of land at The Heights, above Charlton Athetic’s stadium.

A scrutiny panel approved the schemes in principle last night despite concerns about the council’s assumption that because few people in Charlton bothered to reply, there was little opposition.

Only 14 people replied to the consultation in Charlton, with six people disagreeing with the sale, and drop-in sessions were only attended by two residents.

Director of housing Jamie Carswell said: “There has been widespread support that there needs to be more homes in the borough. I had to weigh up that – which is borough-wide – against the level of sentiment at each particular site.

“Not to dispute that there was a small number of people responding, but I had to weigh up that lack of concern, against the overwhelming necessity for housing in general.

“This was always going to be a decision made on balance. Balancing this up, the overwhelming positivity for housing or the naturality at the Heights, that is the balance of this recommendation.”

The Heights
The land between The Heights and Sam Bartram House is contaminated

Charlton councillor Gary Parker called for more consultation to be done and questioned why Pocket had been allowed to embark on a PR drive complete with template support emails.

He said: “Pocket produced a website with a model email and produced Facebook ads and other ads to support their case. I have real concern that developers with a commercial interest have tried to influence a public consultation.

“This was a consultation about the sale of public land. In Charlton, whatever way this is spun round, only two people supported it. The Heights was a neglected estate for a long time, socially isolated with very vulnerable people there. There is a history of anti-social behaviour, all of this has contributed to the low consultation rate.

“I think you have to do further consultation work in this area. You can’t read any conclusions from this.”

Housing bosses said they threw out responses submitted through Pocket’s PR drive, none of which were considered as part of the consultation.

Councillors were told that another consultation would not change the results, citing a lack of community and opposition on the estate as a reason for the low turnout.

Chris Kirby, cabinet member for housing, said: “We ran the same consultation across all estates. Everyone had the same opportunity.

“I believe this was an exemplary consultation – people have had the opportunity to have their say, when there have been strong feelings they have told us and we have listened.

“People do not tend to overwhelmingly respond to something they don’t think is going to affect them.”

The land at The Heights is contaminated and would be too expensive for the council to build on, but specialist developer Pocket believes it can build 45 one-bedroom flats on the site.

Councillors voted to approve the recommendations but told the cabinet member to ask Pocket to build some two-bedroom homes.

Did you take part in the Pocket consultation in Charlton? If so, let us know in the comments.


LDRS logoTom Bull is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
See more about how The Charlton Champion uses LDRS content.



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Leigh Academy gets go-ahead to build new school on Blackheath Bluecoat site

Leigh Academy Blackheath
Leigh Academy Blackheath will open on the old Blackheath Bluecoat site

A new academy has been given the green light to move to a permanent home on the old Blackheath Bluecoat School site despite safety concerns.

Councillors pushed back deciding on the proposed Leigh Academy Blackheath in Old Dover Road at a meeting in October.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency plans to demolish buildings, formerly used by Blackheath Bluecoat before its closure in 2014, and build a new school with a capacity of 1,150 pupils.

Officers said the school needed to be built so there was enough future school places, and that rejecting plans would place the council in a tough position.

Playing field worries

Concerns were raised, however, over the academy’s plan to use the Hervey Road playing field, a five-minute walk away from the site – meaning groups of schoolchildren would be forced to cross Shooters Hill Road to get to PE classes.

Charlton ward Labour councillor Gary Dillon said: “I want to know if there are any road crossings that can be put in on the junction of Old Dover Road and Shooters Hill Road. It’s quite a busy road if the kids are going to be crossing over.”

Officers said a crossing already existed across Shooters Hill Road, meaning it wasn’t necessary to have another “in close proximity”.

“Surely it would be quicker and better for child safety to have another crossing,” Cllr Dillon said. “If my kids were there I would want it.”

Councillors were told it was common for schools to use nearby open spaces for exercise, and that pupils would be supervised along the route.

Neighbours also protested, saying the school would be bigger than Blackheath Bluecoat, and that roads and buses would not cope with extra traffic and more students.

Victoria House
The school is currently based in old army quarters at the foot of Shooters Hill

Several neighbours complained a bigger school would bring pressure on the single-decker 386 which, according to them, is already packed with pupils from the John Roan.

According to officers, the school will not be bigger than Blackheath Bluecoat – the latter was just unpopular.

‘Safety is our priority’

Emma Smith, the school’s principal, said it is policy to have staff at school gates and bus stops to ensure students behaved well.

She said: “The feedback we’ve had is that whatever we are doing is very positive. We are very active at the gates and the safety of our children is priority.

“That’s how we plan to manage our children going forward. We will need more staff as we grow – but we will uphold our standards.”

The Leigh Academy opened in September 2018, starting at Victoria House, a former army building at the foot of Shooters Hill, while plans for the Old Dover Road site were finalised.

The site is currently home to St Mary Magdalene School, which is now moving to a permanent home on Greenwich Peninsula.

The new school will be split across two adjoining buildings, a main teaching block and a sports and drama studio.

Councillors approved the proposals, aside from Cllr Norman Adams (Labour, Kidbrooke with Hornfair) who voted to reject the plan.


LDRS logoTom Bull is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. The Local Democracy Reporter Scheme is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
The Charlton Champion uses LDRS content to supplement its own coverage. Find out more about why we are part of the scheme.


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Woolwich Road roundabout ‘not fit for humans’, council deputy leader says

Woolwich Road roundabout
Edgaras Cepura died at the roundabout in May this year

East Greenwich’s infamous Woolwich Road roundabout, where a cyclist was killed earlier this year, is “not fit for humans”, according to a top councillor.

The junction of the A206 and A102, just west of Charlton, has been the centre of campaigns for cycle safety this year and the leader of Greenwich Council was quizzed on it last night.

Three cyclists died in the space of three weeks in south-east London earlier this year, with the third being Edgaras Cepura at the roundabout on 18 May.

Campaigners and councillors have criticised the junction for being notoriously dangerous for cyclists.

Council leader Danny Thorpe told a Q&A meeting at Woolwich Town Hall: “In relation to the tragic deaths of a number of cyclists over the last year particularly at the roundabout we held a visit with TfL and officers because its a very hard thing to resolve on your own.

“We don’t control all the infrastructure around there but we have to make sure there are changes because it is one of the most horrendous places to be if you’re on foot or bike.”

The council has carried out some safety improvements such as road markings but the road is under the control of Transport for London.

‘Awful roundabout’

It comes as London mayor Sadiq Khan revealed designs for the roundabout are being brought forward.

He told City Hall last month that TfL was working with the council on designs and funding to improve the roundabout “as soon as possible” ahead of a larger scheme of the cycle superhighway.

Cllr Thorpe added: “We have been lobbying hard to make sure a cycle superhighway is extended from Greenwich down to Woolwich too. In this area there is such enormous potential and demand we need to tap into.”

It comes as a wider plan for safety schemes was passed at a cabinet meeting last week.

Deputy leader Cllr David Gardner said: “That is an awful roundabout, it is not built on a human scale. It’s not built for human beings, it needs drastic surgery to make it safe.”


LDRS logoTom Bull is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. The Local Democracy Reporter Scheme is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
The Charlton Champion uses LDRS content to supplement its own coverage. Find out more about why we are part of the scheme.