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Podcast: "There are some real issues facing the homeless this winter"

In the latest episode of our Peterborough Natters Podcast we spoke to James Hayes, of Light Project Peterborough, about how rough sleepers have coped in the past six months.

When the true extent of Covid-19 became apparent in March, 150 rough sleepers needed to be re-housed instantly. Hotels seemed the obvious location, and where once three were being utilised now only one hotel is being used, by 33 rough sleepers.

The Light Project Peterborough charity was responsible for their food provision, and in that time more than 30,000 meals have been provided by individuals, community groups and the religious sector.

The Garden House in Wheel Yard, as part of the Light Project, has helped people throughout the crisis as a facility for rough sleepers to visit and seek help in numerous forms, and has slowly begun to return to some form of normality. 

With the new 'rule of six' edict being issued, the kitchen space has been reduced, and only six people are let into the site excluding volunteers and staff. Anyone who comes into contact with other people who they would not normally see must wear a mask. Last week the Garden House opened up for a Sunday for the first time in months.

James said: "We've been open for the duration of lockdown, and I think in part that's because we put in some strict measures which everyone is complying with. As someone who is the 'enforcer' of these rules my job has been very easy."

When we spoke in March, James remarked that rough sleepers essentially 'invented' social distancing before it became common usage.

James said: "It's a tough old gig out on the streets at the best of times, but even harder now for lots of our guests. Generally you're either homeless or you've got somewhere, but in the middle there used to be emergency provision in what were called crash beds - that doesn't exist at the moment.

"So where as before I might have said 'John, I've persuaded our colleagues in housing to put you in this facility which at least gives you a bed for the night', now that option isn't available. And that may in part explain why people are seeing more people out on the street, and for longer - there isn't that middle provision.

"It's driven by the government directive about 'shared air', and it's very difficult to overcome unless you're going to offer everyone an individual room.

"There have to be some conversations about the winter because the other trigger for providing accommodation in the past has been SWEP - Severe Weather Emergency Provision, for when the weather takes a downturn. We are talking to the local authority about what the plan is. 

"Also this year because of government directives there will be no Winter Night Shelter in the mix, which Light Project Peterborough has been running very successfully in the past five years. So in addition to any emergency provision from the local authority we were providing eight additional beds over what was nearly a six-month period.

"So there are some big issues facing everybody around what we would call our homeless friends, from food provision to accommodation to those falling outside the net with no recourse to public funds."

During the course of our 20 minute chat we spoke to James about rough sleepers specifically coming to Peterborough, the new operation in Peterborough targeting begging known as Operation Luscombe, the current status of the building and what will happen if and when evictions begin.


Darren WilliamsDarren Williams, a volunteer at the Garden House

We also spoke to Darren Williams, who has been a volunteer since December last year - Peterborough Matters interviewed him in the front kitchen, in-between him helping two gentlemen with a cup of tea.

He said: "It certainly has changed since Covid-19. And now, due to the limiting of six people at one time I'm thankfully getting a lot more exercise coming to the front gates and letting people in.

"All guests have masks and we have a secure handwashing for everyone as well. We need to keep track and trace records for those who have arrived, so should a case arrive we are able to trace them.  Mobile phones are vital for everyone, but particularly rough sleepers - they can't get universal credit without them, for example.

"Every day is completely different. But we aim to provide a safe welcoming space, whatever happens." 

One of those people who was recently helped is Chris, who has been furloughed as a forklift truck driver.  

Earlier this year he contemplated suicide twice - at one point holding 48 co-codomol and two bleach tablets in his hand to "finish himself off" - before being saved by the staff at AAU at Edith Cavell and then The Garden House. He is complimentary of both 

On the Garden House he said:  "They are all fantastic here, and go that extra mile - they took my details, phoned housing, and kept pestering them - that's what's needed to take people off the street. It seems more gets done here than other places

"They've helped me find temporary accommodation, which is good. I was in a really bad place, hearing voices, at my last place. There's a hell of a lot of drugs there and I just literally left everything and ended up on the streets, and then hospital. 

"I feel much better now and would recommend anyone who finds themselves in the situation to come here for a start."

Chris wishes the old hospital could have been used for housing homeless people, and believes Peterborough City Council should be doing more to find funding - while recognising the current situation.

He said: "Covid will be about for a long while I'm afraid - it's not just going to go. This time it might come back stronger because it mutates. Boris Johnson has said six months but I think that's unrealistic. 

"I've got to find out if I'm still furloughed, which is a phone call I'm not looking forward to. There is work out there if you want it. But people are very very nervous about taking that first step and going back into work - once they do that they'll be OK. 

"I am lucky because I have good people around me at work and have been a forklift driver all my life - I know what it's all about."