One of the biggest misconceptions about homelessness is that people who experience it are somehow different, or that it won’t happen to you. 

The words of the CEO of the 999 Club, a small homeless charity in Lewisham, are reflected in those who use the service. 

“When we started 25 years ago the demographic was mostly middle-aged men, now it’s young people who are privately renting for the first time and the landlord doesn’t renew their contract or hikes up the rent at the end of it. They don’t even have to give a reason. 

“These are people who never thought they would become homeless; they can’t believe it,” says Tim Fallon.  

More than 300,000 people are experiencing homelessness nationally and nearly 9,000 people are rough sleeping in capital, an increase of 18 per cent in the last year.   

Common causes are relationship break-ups, domestic violence, rent hikes, sudden job loss and benefit cuts.  

One in every 45 people – 6,717 – in Lewisham is homeless, which is the 12th highest rate of homelessness in the country. 50 of those are rough sleeping. 

People sleeping long-term on the streets have a life-expectancy in their forties.  

Visitors to the 999 Club are mainly made up of single people with no dependents who are classed as non-priority; the council has no duty of care to them. 

“They have to house priority people, people with children or those fleeing domestic violence. 

“If you approach them as a single adult, who is literally sleeping on the street and you don’t have dependents or very high support needs then all they have to do is provide advice and assistance.  

“A lot of people we work with are vulnerable but if they’re assessed by the local authority, they say you may be vulnerable but you don’t meet the threshold. You have to be really, really vulnerable before they take you. 

“This has always surprised me,” says Tim. 

The charity in Deptford provides The Gateway every morning from Monday to Friday, where people can get breakfast, a hot shower, do their laundry, get advice on benefits and getting work, and use computers for job searches. 

The 999 Club offers help with CVs, health advice, and can link people with a GP if they need medical attention; it holds classes on IT, literacy and drama. 

And for the first time the night shelter has been able to stay open year-round, thanks to the Government’s Rough Sleepers Initiative which granted the charity £191,000 in funding. 

The Government launched the RSI last year, allocating £30 million to local authorities in a bid to eliminate rough sleeping. 

Before that, the night shelter could only open for ten weeks at a time – the charity gets about one per cent of its funding from the local authority so in the past it depended nearly completely on fundraising.

They are currently getting a bid together, through Lewisham Council, for more funding from the RSI but the cash is only handed out yearly, leaving charities in the dark about whether they can keep running their services. The 999 Club won’t know if the night shelter will have to close again until two months before the money runs out in March. 

Hiring staff becomes an issue when long-term employment can’t be guaranteed. And Tim is very concerned about what will happen to the people who use the night shelter if the funding doesn’t come through – there is no other year-round facility in the borough.  

“For a small organisation like us it’s quite hard to plan for all that.  

“Before this money came along the night shelter that we run, we had to do all sorts of voluntary fundraising to raise money for it. 

“Before we had this money, at the beginning of 2018, we had one member of staff working nights, so we were able to accommodate 10 people in our night shelter – because we got extra funding we were able to employ two staff to run the night shelter every night of the year.  

“We can now accommodate 25 people. A lot of people who would otherwise be on the streets are now in our night shelter. 

“What we’re worried about is, when we’re not there, what then happens to those people?” 

Even as it stands, austerity is leaving holes in services that would have previously caught people before things get too bad.  If a client is suffering a mental health crisis, they may have to wait weeks to be seen because they are not deemed as bad as others.  

“It’s horrendous but that’s just the way it is. 

“We’ll refer somebody to mental health services – I’m not being critical, they are under a lot of pressure – who’s in significant need, very distressed, and they’ll say ‘well we can see them but they’ll have to wait x number of weeks’.   

“They’re homeless and they need help now. You get this sense of a rationed service.” 

But Tim says overall they are just grateful for the funding. If he could ask for anything it would be more regulation in the private rental sector and long-term funding.  

“We’re a small organisation with a staff team of 15 and about 50 regular volunteers so we see on a day to day basis the people coming into our day centre or night shelter and we get to know them quite well. 

“All of them are really realistic about what they want, nobody wants anything excessive, they’re just looking for somewhere basic and decent to live. 

“One of our real frustrations is that we have to put most of the people we work with in the private rental sector because they don’t have dependents.  

“Trying to get into that sector is really difficult. In London, normally you have to pay a deposit in advance, you’ll be on a six-month assured tenancy and your landlord could just end it at the end of that. 

“Those 100 people we rehoused in the last year, if we found a property they could go and see, they’d turn up and view it and there’d be 20 other people viewing the same property; it’s really competitive. 

“If you’re homeless and you’re on benefits, then landlords are not necessarily that keen to take you,” he says.  

Long-term funding would help with hiring staff and take away the anxiety of not knowing what will happen year to year.  

“The Government’s got a long term strategy but it’s got short term funding so we’d like some kind of recognition that the services that we and others provide actually do need to be there, not just this year and the next year but for the next five years or ten years until whenever homelessness is solved,” Tim said.  

In the meantime Tim and his team will be providing people going through very difficult times with something they don’t often experience. 

He said: “The biggest misconception is that somehow homeless people are a different group of people from everyone else, that they’re beggars or junkies, so one of the things we always try and say in our organisation is that we work with people experiencing homelessness not homeless people. 

“They are people exactly like you and me and they become homeless. 

“Part of the feedback we get from people is we really like that you just treated us like just another person. 

“We try and say we’re only a small charity, there’s a limit to what we can do, but we’re going to treat you like a human being with dignity. 

“It’s amazing how people respond to that, that even though what we provide isn’t great, I felt you listened to me and respected me.”

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