Author: RACHAEL BURFORD
The capital’s homelessness crisis has left an east London shopping centre “resembling a refugee camp”, campaigners said today.
Most nights “nearly 100 people” are sleeping in the Stratford Centre, which lies opposite the Westfield shopping mall and is a route to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The Newham shopping centre is a public right of way and cannot be locked.
“Prison is starting to look like a good option for me,” one of the homeless, 42-year-old Ryan, said. He did not give his surname because he does not want his family to know he has been living in the centre for six months.
“You get gangs sweeping through robbing people after dark,” said Ryan, who became homeless after splitting up with his partner. “There’s a big problem with drugs. People smoking Spice, which turns them into zombies.”
Shelter says one in 25 people in Newham are homeless, the highest proportion in Britain. “Homelessness” includes rough sleeping and living in a squat or staying with friends temporarily.
The rough sleeping rate in Newham has tripled since 2010, and last year more than 1,300 people were added to its homeless register.
Lorraine Tabone set up the Lola’s Homeless group in 2015. Every Wednesday she and volunteers hand out food and sleeping bags in the centre. She receives no official funding.
She said four years ago a couple of dozen people, mostly from eastern Europe, were sleeping in the centre. Now a large percentage are from London. “Every week more and more turn up,” Ms Tabone said. “It’s getting close to breaking point. Something should have been done a long time ago. There were more than 90 people sleeping in here last night. Ninety. How ridiculous is that?”
She added: “Of course, there is also violence. We need to get them off the street now.”
Many of Ms Tabone’s volunteers are people she has got into temporary accommodation.
One of them is Debbie Brown, 49, who suffered a nervous breakdown after spending four years living on the streets and sleeping on night buses. She has been living in a hostel for three years.
“There is no social housing in Newham and I can’t afford to pay £1,000-a-month for a private rent and then agency fees and deposits,” she said.
“I had no idea what to do when I became homeless. I was just told I wasn’t a housing priority. I’m still not.”
Former Chelsea footballer Mickey Ambrose lives in Stratford and has joined the campaign to help get Newham’s homeless out of the centre. “I walk through here a lot,” he said. “One morning there were sleeping bags everywhere. It was like a refugee camp. I’d call it the scandal of Stratford.”
Newham’s new Labour mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, has promised that housing will be her “number one priority”. She said: “The situation at the centre has to be sorted out. It is profoundly disturbing.”
In January the council, under a previous administration, was criticised after rough sleepers at the centre were handed community protection notices, barring them from sleeping in shop doorways.