Croydon homelessness crisis driven by ‘lack of access’

However, one constant has persisted throughout this period of change. Every night around 9:30pm, a queue forms along Fell Road for Nightwatch’s daily soup kitchen.

Nightwatch is one of Croydon’s longest-running voluntary support groups and has been operating out of the same spot opposite the council’s Victorian Town Hall for decades. 

Along with providing food to Croydon’s homeless population seven days a week, it also offers employment and housing advice free of charge.

Whilst their objective hasn’t changed, Nightwatch’s volunteers have noticed a big change in the challenges that homeless people face in the borough. 

The prevailing thought is the issue stems from access to homeless services and the way successive councils have treated the borough’s homeless population.

Jad Adams has been the Chair of Nightwatch since 1992.

He told the local democracy reporting service (LDRS) of the difficulties Croydon’s homeless face and their experiences in accessing Council support. 

He said: “Some of our people are not really computer literate and have trouble with working online services, so there’s not sufficient assistance and in some instances no assistance at all for them.

“In a way, I think that the Council’s system can seem like it’s set up to discourage people from accessing it rather than to help people get the help and advice they need.

“It’s entirely inappropriate if you have got a client group, a large percentage of whom can’t use online services or have difficulty doing so.

“There’s also the issue that everyone is expected to have a smart phone and this is simply not the case.”

These difficulties follow the shocking revelation that the number of rough sleepers in Croydon shot above the London average in the last year.

The Rough Sleeping in London report, released by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network in April, showed a 39 per cent increase from 89 to 124 cases between January and March 2023 and January and March 2024.

The current Conservative-run Council has made clear its efforts to try and address these issues, the cornerstone of which is its new homelessness strategy released this year. 

The strategy seeks to act on six key priorities:  improving customer services, prevention of homelessness, lessening reliance on temporary accommodation, tackling rough sleeping, increasing housing supply and working more effectively with stakeholders.

Adams was active during the consultation process for this strategy and is appreciative of the Council’s intentions.

However, he told the LDRS that since these meetings he has not seen any real change, especially in the way that the Council is interacting with homeless people.

He told the LDRS: “I don’t go with people to make housing applications at the Council but the feedback from people who go there is that it is not a positive experience.

“The staff can be unhelpful and the entire system can be very confusing because it’s done online. 

This sentiment was shared by several people attending Nightwatch when the LDRS visited recently.

One Croydon resident, Ash, told the LDRS how his recent experiences with the Council’s homelessness teams left him feeling disillusioned.

He said: “I had just come out of a mental health hospital, but when I went there I almost wanted to give up again.

“When you have to deal with people like that, it makes you not want to go back again and you’d rather just get in a tent with these guys and go out in the streets.

“They don’t know what they’re doing in the job, you get there at ten o’clock and you sit down and wait there for four hours before being seen. They said they’d been in touch with me months ago, but you really had to push them to try and get you somewhere. It’s hard work.”

Councillor Rowenna Davis, who heads up the Council’s Scrutiny Committee, made similar findings following conversations with her constituents and homeless providers.

At a scrutiny committee meeting last month, Davis put her concerns to the Council’s housing lead Lynne Hale.

She said: “Those who are homeless often can’t get appointments, others are missed and cancelled without notice, the wait times on the phone are frequently over 90mins, staff seem overburdened and can be rude, homeless plans are late and frequently contain mistakes.”

She added: “I do appreciate that leaders are working from a very low base and all Councils are struggling with acute levels of need, but I listened to over 20 workers in this field, and they were unanimous in their belief that it had got harder to work with Croydon Council since the recent reorganisation of the service.”

Another Nightwatch attendee told the LDRS of his frustration with the process of securing accommodation and starting work. Peter spent most of his life in the motor industry but was made redundant after the onset of COVID.

He told the LDRS how he is eager to get back into work and has even found opportunities that would suit him on LinkedIn.

However, he is currently sleeping on a park bench, and any employment in that field will require him to have a fixed address.

Whilst he believes he is close to finding accommodation, Peter still spends his day carrying a pack around Sutton and Croydon waiting for his “seemingly endless” meetings with the Council.

Whilst housing shortages are not endemic to Croydon, the borough has several features which mean it often experiences the sharp edge of the crisis.

An inadequate affordable housing stock and section 21 evictions present their own problems, but the impact of Lunar House is unique to Croydon.

The Home Office’s Lunar House building on Wellesley Road has been the primary landing pad for new arrivals to the UK for decades. All migrants and asylum seekers must visit the building upon arrival as part of the VISA application process.

Chris Waldock, the Community Services Director at Salvation Army’s Croydon Citadel believes Lunar House places an undeniable strain on housing in the borough, which Waldock called “a big black hole.”

He told the LDRS: “In Croydon, you have the Home Office, and I think the issue is housing and whether they’re entitled to it.

“It’s ok bringing different people into the country but it’s got to be able to manage people coming into the country in terms of accommodation and housing.”

Waldock has been running weekly drop-in sessions at the Croydon Citadel on the other side of the town centre for the past 26 years.

The Well drop-in centre provides food and hot drinks but also invites partners into the space to provide housing, mental health, and employment support. 

Waldock told the LDRS: “Back in 1997 I was seeing older men, mainly 55 years old plus use our services. Now homelessness is all ages, all nationalities all religions, and cultures.”

“The language barrier is a huge issue for people in terms of access and the cost of living is pushing more people to the edge of the cliff of homelessness.

“When people come and say they want a roof over their head, we don’t have those resources and that comes down to the bigger problem of people not knowing where they can go.”

During a recent visit to the centre, the LDRS spoke with Colin King who works for Employment Plus, the Salvation Army’s employment support wing.

King now serves around 44 clients per week and believes many of them experience the same issues about finding employment. 

He told the LDRS how many have “lost confidence” in themselves following years of homelessness and now struggle with the technological requirements of job seeking.

His workload, which he admitted had increased since COVID, now consists of providing CV support and job interview skills on a one-to-one basis. 

The LDRS also spoke to Andy, who spoke of his experiences on Croydon streets and the importance of services like the Croydon Citadel.

He said: “Last year was like a domino effect, it was one thing after another. 

“My mother passed away then I got arthritis and then became homeless, it all spiralled out of control. However, because it wasn’t the first time around I knew what to do and met loads of people and helped them out.”

Andy had previously worked in reactive maintenance and construction before separating from his partner and becoming homeless. However, he has since found temporary accommodation in the borough and is undertaking a management course.

While he feels his life is heading in the right direction, Andy was keen to reflect on his experiences of homelessness and how hard life had become on the streets of Croydon. 

He said: “It’s so bad out on the streets now, you’ve got the homeless robbing the homeless now whereas it seemed like they used to try and look after each other back in the day. I’ve seen people arguing over cigarette butts on the floor, it’s got that bad.”

When approached for comment, a Croydon Council spokesperson said: “When people approach us for housing and homelessness help, we want to respond with empathy and respect, and provide a timely, responsive service to those in need.

“Our new homeless strategy sets out the many ways we are improving our service, working with partners for a co-ordinated and collaborative approach to tackling homelessness.

“Our absolute focus is on prevention, making it easier for people at risk of homelessness to access advice and support at the earliest stage. We’ve introduced several changes, including new training for staff to improve our customer care and working with charity partners to review our online application form and ensure that it is easy to use.

“We continue to offer a face-to-face homelessness service at the council’s main public office, Access Croydon, and we have a specialist dedicated housing team that work with new refugees, including directly in hotels used by the Home Office.

“While demand far outstrips supply in Croydon as elsewhere in London, we have significantly improved management of our housing stock to help us provide homes for those in need.

“We’re getting empty homes back into use more quickly, while working with our housing association partners to increase the supply of new affordable and social housing.

“Together with our partners in health and the voluntary sector, we are working to support rough sleepers off the street and into homes, and to tackle the causes of long-term rough sleeping.

“We have a dedicated rough sleeping outreach team that engages and provides support to all rough sleepers in Croydon, regardless of their immigration status. Nightwatch are one of many partners we are talking to, about how we can better work with them to help those in need.”

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