Special Report: The homeless at St Paul’s in Harlow

Politics / Thu 12th Feb 2015 at 10:12am

St Pauls HarlowA Letter from St Paul’s

By Jo O’Reilly

IF you’ve walked past St Paul’s Church in the town centre recently, you might have noticed that Harlow’s homelessness problem has become a lot more visible. The small gardens at the side of the church have been filled with tents, pitched by the homeless looking for a safe place to sleep. The tents have been provided by local homelessness charity Streets2Homes. Although it runs a regular drop in service in the day, Streets2Homes does not have the facilities to provide a overnight shelter for the town’s homeless, except in cases of severe weather.

The appearance of the tents has started to attract attention and has become the subject of several posts on The Facebook group ‘Harlow Bargains’ a popular local selling page. A message about the tents posted last Friday received over 250 comments, with many of those commenting asking what they could do to help the homeless at St Paul’s.

Several had stated their intentions to head down to the church on Friday night and take blankets, clothes and food, including Andy Cruise. I met him outside the church at about 8pm, he was speaking to a small group of men who were taking shelter in the archway at the front of the church with sleeping bags. From Harlow, Mr Cruise had spent his evening gathering together boots, blankets and warm clothes to take down to them, once he realised that the men had no food he left to buy them Pizza.

One of those taking shelter in the archway was Jason, born in Harlow Jason 26, had found himself homeless after failing into rent arrears and being evicted by the council. Sat in the doorway with a companion who chose not to give his name, Jason told me he had been on the streets for a year, and his friend, ‘four months this time around’. Despite the cold and with the temperature set to drop even further that night, the men told me there was no overnight shelter in Harlow. That unless the temperature stayed below zero for three nights consecutively, there was nowhere for them to sleep. ‘You could be dead in that time’, Jason added.

When I asked why they had chosen to sleep outside the church Jason explained, ‘It’s safety in numbers, this is about the safest place we can go, we know each other.’ The men I spoke to were not staying in tents, they had just their sleeping bags for warmth, the church had informed them they didn’t want anymore tents and there was no more space anyway. Without a tent it was a struggle for them to look after belongings. ‘I try and keep stuff to a minimum, I give what stuff I have to friends and that to look after throughout the day.’

On Tuesday afternoon I headed back to St Paul’s, Jason and his friends were not outside the church. Instead a roll of carpet and child’s mattress had been propped up against the building, donated by Harlow residents keen to help. In the daylight the tents pitched around the side of the church were fully visible although appeared unoccupied, alongside them shopping trolleys of belongings covered by black binbags took up the entire space of the small garden.

Pat Balkwill the Parish Administrator, was keen to explain that they were doing what they could to discourage the tents, ‘We cant be seen to be giving permission for a campsite here,’ although she estimated that with around 20 homeless people in the area the church was not at present asking them to move on, ‘It’s a problem, there is a lack of housing but people won’t admit it is happening.’

The church grounds themselves provide a relatively safe location to many of the homeless fearful of staying elsewhere. Ms Balkwill had told me that a group at the church had had their tents attacked when camping elsewhere, and on Friday night Jason had told me that when camping in elsewhere in town, they had woken up to find eviction notices stuck on the tents from Harlow Council.

Ms Balkwill went on to tell me that since Friday night St Paul’s had been inundated with donations, causing additional problems. Local people had delivered fresh food and clothes that they had no way of distributing, ‘By late Friday night the homeless had been surrounded by black binbags full of clothes that they were not able to carry with them, and the church is unable to store.’ She was keen to stress that any further donations should be taken to Streets2Homes.

It’s not just the donations causing the church concern, Ms Balkwill was worried that the appearance of the tents could put people off visiting, as well as about the potential dangers in having the men stay so close to the church, which runs a number of activities for children.

‘For us, we don’t know who they are, or what their background is so we could have child protection issues.’

Harlow town Chaplain Robert Findlay has also taken to social media to publicise the issue, on Monday he tweeted an image of the tents alongside the message, ‘Imagine sleeping here at -5C! Pray with me for improved accommodation for the homeless in Harlow.’ When I spoke to him he was keen not to blame the council although expressed frustration at the slowness of getting a permanent night shelter sorted within the town,

‘Anything we can give these folks is an improvement on what they’ve got, I think the council are paralyzed by legislation.’

He did add that many local councilors have been sympathetic to the situation and had been working with himself and Streets2Homes towards a more permanent solution.

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1 Comment for Special Report: The homeless at St Paul’s in Harlow:

2015-02-17 09:19:22

On behalf of Streets2Homes may I say we are concerned as anyone at the plight of all rough sleepers. We do work with many people who are currently sleeping rough (and vulnerably housed) but there are occasions when it is difficult to find accommodation for them, or for them to sustain accommodation. We welcome Ms Balkwill's suggestion of making donations of food and clothing to Streets2Homes. More information can be found on our website and Facebook page.

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