Gary Davidge, our Homeless Drop-in manager, talks to us about the state of homelessness, the increase in homeless deaths and the people we have lost this year.
How long have you been with SCT? What changes have you seen over this period?
I have been working at SCT in the Drop-in for nine years. When I first started, we ran the Drop-in for three days a week catering for about 15 people a day, mostly from the UK and Ireland.
But over the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen people from every walk of life, every country we have represented in London. I have also seen a slight increase in percentage of women coming to the Drop-in but not as much as what official reports have said.
Do you see this trend in other drop-ins?
It is. I know it is. All of us are trying to set up women’s groups and we’re all struggling with it, as women don’t feel safe in many drop-ins. But saying that, our women’s group sees three to six women a week and we’re always there.
Anything you do in homelessness has to be consistent because the people that come in aren’t going to be consistent and we need to be, as we maybe the only consistent thing in their life.
There have been reports claiming the number of people sleeping rough in London is rising – is that reflected?
It is hard to tell when it comes to SCT. We operate out of two small spaces in St Leonard’s Church and the Tab Centre in Shoreditch. Like I said, we started with 15, now we see more like 45 people at any one time. So definitely a rise. And speaking to other drop-ins, many have seen their numbers increase over the past three years.
In 2018, 726 people died homeless in England and Wales. And in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, we saw 10 deaths. Does that match up with your experience?
The statistics just don’t seem right to me. Since June alone, I know personally of 12 people who have passed away. These are people who habitually came to our Drop-in. Many of the people we lost were due to illness as a result of years of self-neglect while living on the streets, some facing alcohol and drug addiction.
When I first started working at SCT, the Drop-in was about getting people housed. But now, with housing shortages and cuts, it is about keeping people alive.
Really sorry to hear that. In a similar way, the statistics also claim that most deaths on average take place in December. Do you think the cold has something to do with this trend?
We do hear of more people dying in the winter months. The cold weather certainly makes people weaker and more likely to die of hypothermia. It is that lethal combination of life on the streets with freezing temperatures.
Do you think you could tell us a little more about some of the people we have lost recently?
There is a group of men who come into our Drop-in, mostly from Eastern Europe. Many Europeans sleeping rough have very limited access to benefits and housing. That means that for many who lose their jobs and are forced to live on the streets, it can be a very difficult situation to get out of.
This group of friends have faced a lot together over the past year. Just over the summer, three members died within a few weeks of each other. One was as young as 31 years old. He had been rough sleeping for about four years after he lost his job. He drank to cope with the despair he felt. But it wasn’t the drink that killed him, he died suddenly of an asthma attack in September. Another member died in May. I remember calling the ambulance for him. Another friend was there, he was so upset. And now I can see the people who remain in that group feel so utterly hopeless. They know it could have been any of them.
At the time, I also felt hopeless. But time passes and you see sparks of joy among the sadness. Many people have come up to me and said: “I wouldn’t be alive without you” or “I’m so glad you are in my life, you keep me going”. You must hold onto the moments where you have made a difference.