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
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.
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
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.
slowly and calls “Hello?”
Inside the cloud
cave, someone replies. “Hello.”
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
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
“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.