Thames Reach
Wednesday 24 May 2017
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Hidden Heroes

Thames Reach Communications Team volunteer Amy recently joined London Street Rescue on an outreach shift. This is Amy’s account of the evening. (Names have been changed).

 

They work late at night, little seen and often unknown. But for the rough sleepers they help, London Street Rescue outreach workers are the first, and arguably most important, point of contact.

 

London Street Rescue assists rough sleepers off the streets and into safe accommodation, acting as a safety net for some of society’s most vulnerable men and women. Tonight, I am in the van with Bob, who is talking me through the areas we are searching: Hackney, Haringey and Walthamstow. We begin by going through a list of referrals compiled by Street Link.


Referrals can be made by official bodies such as local housing authorities, or from a member of the public reporting “someone sleeping near my bins.” The referrals contain records of any previous rescue attempt, and notes that include where the individual was seen, personal appearances and medical conditions if evidenced. Details vary, but all the referrals have one thing in common: each represent a person we are looking for.

 

The first stop is a park where a homeless person has been seen sleeping on a bench. The gates are locked. Across the fencing, we ask a small band of street drinkers inside if they know anyone called John sleeping there. They do not. Bob shows his ID and announces who we are.

 

“We don’t need your help,” they tell us. “We are travellers. Our community looks after us.”

 

Back in the van, Bob updates the notes.

 

London Street Rescue helps homeless individuals verified as sleeping rough. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to find the person we are looking for; non-sightings are recorded and followed up with a phone call to the person who made the original referral.  Bob explains that a person may be reported as sleeping rough when actually he or she could be housed in a hostel and simply begging on the streets. This is the case for Keith, who we find sitting between KFC and a cash machine and who, despite Bob’s efforts, does not want our help. 

 

Neither does the next person we find sleeping at a train station. Bob tries to persuade the man to do an assessment so that he can be helped, but all the man is interested in is a shower. Bob says he will visit him again tomorrow.

 

As the night continues, we do not find the person supposedly on a bench outside a police station, nor the one reported at a bus shelter with no sleeping bag. We do not find anyone at a park entrance bench, or in the building we don’t gain access to because the note at the front desk reads: “CONCIERGE OFFICER ON BREAK.” We search on, following a report of someone sleeping rough near residential bins. We find the address and Bob parks by an outdoor bin shed.

 

Bob goes inside the little building and tells me to come and look. In one small corner, surrounded by metal bins, a duvet lines the ground. Someone’s bed. But the someone is not here.

 

Bob tells me that the process of finding and helping someone can be frustrating. “But if you do, then it’s a good night.”

 

Our final person’s location is listed as a house. The estate is a maze and it is difficult to find the exact place listed but, after a few circuits, we see it: the makeshift ‘cave’ formed of wooden boards under a roofed bit of the building. White duvet drapes over the boards like a gushing river.  

 

Bob approaches slowly and calls “Hello?”

Inside the cloud cave, someone replies. “Hello.”

“London Street Rescue. Are you Alan?”

“Yes,” says a man.

 

Bob explains who we are and asks questions which the man, Alan, answers, still tucked away from view.

 

He had been there three weeks. He had been homeless before but came to be out here this time because he lost his job as a labourer. “Things escalated from there,” he says in a foreign accent. Bob returns with news that there is space at the assessment centre. We give Alan space to pack his things. A moment later he emerges, carrying a normal-sized backpack. He is tall, in his thirties with combed hair and a neat beard. He is wearing nice clothes and looks more like an actor on his day off than the stereotype of a homeless person. In the van, Alan rubs his hands together to warm them. When asked if he wants the heating turned up, he answers, “no, no, this is cool, man.”  His voice is casual, easy; his legs swing, as though in excitement or in need of stretching. He had, he tells us, been anticipating rescue for some time.

 

“The council said someone was looking for me. That was three weeks ago. Earlier I heard a noise, some voices, people walking around. I thought it was you guys. But it was just children messing around. Then you did come. I’m glad because it’s starting to get cold now. I put the duvet over the boards like that so it could be seen.”

 

We took Alan to the Assessment Centre. He waited in the seated area, silent, still, a little shell-shocked maybe, glad but not humbled, wearing a faint smile akin to that of a child winning first prize in a competition he did not enter. Bob and I drove the van back to base before getting taxis home.