An emergency shelter funded by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has been opened to offer a lifeline to rough sleepers in the capital whenever three consecutive nights of freezing temperature are predicted. Mr Johnson said: ‘This shelter will offer a vital lifeline when temperatures tumble to sub-zero levels and rough sleepers risk losing their lives in the cold.’
Just how and why Dave and his mother, Nancy, came to be sleeping outside, in the corner of a car park, is too complicated and surreal a story to explain. But what you need to know is that there’s no easy solution to their problem, and sleeping rough in itself isn’t alarming or even unusual for them. Like any 77-year-old, Nancy has her troubles: swollen feet, swollen knuckles, and she’s bent like the top of a shepherd’s crook — but she’s a trouper. She never complains, just says: ‘Well dear, it can’t be helped.’ When I ask how she survives at night in the terrible cold, she says: ‘Well, I’ve got gloves you see, dear, puffy ones, and blankets and an umbrella. And I sit in a chair, so it’s not too bad.’
‘Mother looks a right sight,’ says Dave. He wears two hats: one bobble, one baseball; two shirts, three fleeces and a jacket.
I’ve known Dave and Nancy for six years now. Six years’ worth of chats at a weekly soup kitchen, and in that time they’ve slept out in all manner of horrid places. Nancy summers on a bench by the Thames; Dave once spent six months doggo from dusk to dawn on top of a storage unit. For a while last year they camped beside St Paul’s in a tent full of rain and mice, and became the unofficial mascots of the ‘Occupy’ gang. And mostly, they seem OK.
Last Thursday, for the first time since I’ve known them, they were not OK. They’d been booted out from their car park just that day, said Dave, by a developer who wanted to smarten the place up. Moving on wasn’t the problem but, not wanting to carry all their bedclothes around, they’d bundled them into a locker, which was now shut till morning. Neither had thought about the night to come, and it was due to freeze. ‘What will you do?’ Dave, usually resourceful, was stumped. ‘Well, we don’t know, do we mother?’ As the other guests began to drift outside, I checked the forecast: minus 2˚. ‘Oh Lord, Mother will probably die,’ said Dave, with a nervous laugh. ‘Nonsense,’ said Nancy, and began to shuffle towards the door. ‘Anyway dear, it can’t be helped.’
It took a few seconds for the severity of their situation to pierce through what had been happy thoughts about my own dinner, still to come. But Dave was right. Left outside with no chair and no blankets, Nancy was in danger. Only the day before, passers-by had reported seeing her half-frozen at a bus stop and called an ambulance. ‘Angels of mercy,’ said Nancy. ‘But I wasn’t dying, I was just having a nap. The cold makes you sleepy, doesn’t it?’ Yes, if you’re hypothermic.
So while Dave and Nancy edged towards the door, my friend Anna and I began a frantic online search: ‘emergency help’, ‘homeless’, ‘winter’. And after a few hours, we’d discovered a curious fact. Though at first there seemed to be innumerable groups offering just what we needed, in the world of homeless charities, the phrase ‘emergency shelter’ has a very counter-intuitive meaning.
I tried Shelter first, ‘the housing and homelessness charity’ who offer ‘free, emergency housing advice’, but their helpline had closed. A robot voice said: ‘If you need emotional support, please call the Samaritans.’ Next Streetlink. This was bound to work. I even found a little boast on their website from a Mr Mark Prisk, the housing minister: ‘With the nights getting colder, many people will be wondering how they can help when they see someone facing a night on the street. Streetlink will give them a chance to make a real difference.’ A nice-sounding girl answered my call, and I offloaded my worries. She said: ‘I’m afraid we can only make a referral to one of our outreach workers.’ Great, let’s do that. ‘I’m afraid they can take 48 to 72 hours to arrive.’ 72 hours!? ‘Listen,’ I whispered: ‘The old lady’ll be dead by then!’ Nancy looked hurt. The girl said, ‘There’s nothing I can do, and, um, we’re the fastest unit around.’ She did sound sorry.
Meanwhile, Anna got through to The Connection, a night and day centre for the homeless, at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square. Perfect: they’re just down the road, even Nancy could shuffle that far, and yes, they had beds, but … no, we couldn’t just turn up. ‘You have to be referred by one of our outreach workers,’ said the voice. ‘And they’re out and about looking for rough sleepers.’
‘Well, I’ve got some rough sleepers here,’ said Anna in a lovely calm voice, ‘so let’s call the outreach workers.’
‘We don’t have contact numbers for them. Goodbye.’
Between nine and ten p.m. Anna called 15 different helplines. Most went to voicemail, some didn’t work.
At around 10 p.m. I struck gold: a press statement from Boris Johnson (my old boss here at The Spectator) announcing a new emergency shelter. Boris to the rescue! The press release was quite clear, you can read it at the top of this page. It promised a bed whenever there were three consecutive freezing nights. I checked: on the night of Monday the 21st it was minus 2˚; on Tuesday the 22nd, minus 5˚. Wednesday night was freezing. St Mungo’s provide this service for the Mayor, so I called them. ‘Tonight? Oh no. You need a referral.’ What? It’s freezing. It’s an actual emergency. ‘We need a referral’ (this said actually quite crossly). ‘Goodnight.’ ‘What’s going on?’ said Dave nervously. But I didn’t have any idea.
So Anna went to search the city for nameless outreach workers and Dave, Nancy and I plodded off into the frozen night. ‘It’s all going to be all right,’ I said, ‘we’ll find somewhere.’ We trooped through Covent Garden, Dave and Nancy picking up useful things like string, me composing a mental letter to my old friend Boris: ‘What sort of emergency shelter is set up for sub-zero temperatures, but then makes people wait 72 hours for a referral? What if it’s warmer in 72 hours? What would the outreach workers say then?’ Anna, doing the rounds of shelters on foot, later reported what one worker said: ‘I’m afraid we’re not about helping homeless people in emergencies any more. It’s become about filling in forms and identifying needs on paper, which in reality doesn’t help.’
At near-on 11 p.m., just as desperation was setting in, there like the star over Bethlehem appeared a sign for the High Holborn Travel Inn on Drury Lane. So I booked them into a family room on the sixth floor, easy as pie. ‘I’d have worn my best coat if I’d known,’ said Nancy as we took the lift up. When I left, she gave me two quite fresh plastic pots of fruit as a present, then set about making tea.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 February 2013