A Londoner has seen a young man wearing a cap and jeans bedding down outside a coach station.
Worried he is sleeping rough, the anonymous tipster began taking notes.
Another has described a man with a concerning cough who they have seen over and over again.
A young woman has also been seen on the streets, although she is reported to have looked quite healthy.
“Could use a shower and could be put to decent work,” is the message which comes with that tip-off.
All of these sightings have been reported by concerned members of the public on the smartphone app StreetLink.
Late last Thursday we joined Sasha Morse and James Laws as they read through the spreadsheet of referrals made to the app and ventured out into the night.
The pair are among the 150 ordinary Londoners who applied to be on homeless charity St Mungo’s’ new first response teams in a three-month pilot, tasked with finding where people are rough sleeping so outreach workers can find them faster.
They range from British to Romanian, Irish, Australian and Kiwi; and more than half are aged between 21 and 30.
Already, they have spent 615 volunteer hours locating rough sleepers in Westminster, Tower Hamlets, Islington and the City.
They rely on reports from the public – workers passing by a figure in a sleeping bag as they arrive at the office in the morning, business owners stepping over somebody sleeping on their doorstep as they open up a shop and commuters who spot people taking shelter outside stations.
The first response teams are the brainchild of Petra Salva, St Mungo’s’ director of rough sleeper services, who has worked in the sector more than 20 years.
She noticed that even with the help of the public’s reports via StreetLink, professional outreach workers were spending too much time searching for rough sleepers in London’s vast streetscape, rather than talking to them and arranging support.
The programme was funded by the estate agent Chestertons, and St Mungo’s plans to expand it around London and Essex.
“Since we partnered with St Mungo’s I have seen first-hand the huge problems some people face in their lives, often this is not of their own making,” Chestertons global deputy chairman Allan Collins wrote in support of the programme.
Last Thursday night, as crowds thronged around pubs, Westminster street outreach coordinator Lorna Fraser and outreach services manager Laura Shovlin stopped to talk to some of the people preparing to bed down for the night.
“When we didn’t have first response there was a pressure to get to all of the referrals and not everybody in the team could stop and talk to the people we saw,” Ms Fraser says.
“It was taking away from the time we could spend with them.”
Now they find around 40 per cent of the people Londoners refer to StreetLink, and locate their sleeping spots faster due to the first response volunteers like Mr Laws and Ms Morse, who were assigned a walkabout in Westminster.
Putting on their walking shoes to help
Ms Morse’s parents used to be part of Night Stop in Bristol, helping young people off the street by giving them an emergency bed in their family home.
The trigger for her to volunteer with St Mungo’s came when she met a 17-year-old homeless girl and wished she could offer more than a coffee and a chat.
“Homelessness is just so much more than the people you see sleeping rough,” she explains.
“There’s invisible homelessness – I was wanting to do something.”
Armed with a spreadsheet of descriptions, the pair walk briskly through an underground station, passing three crude beds of sleeping bags and cardboard, guarded by a dog, which looks up as they pass by without pausing.
They reconvene out of sight around a corner and write down what they saw, to pass on to the outreach workers.
Mr Laws notes it looks like whoever is there has been sleeping in that location for some time.
The job for the volunteers is not to engage with rough sleepers; they are there to confirm locations, to spot anyone else along the way, and ensure the professional outreach workers can get there as quickly as possible.
Ms Salva says: “The job of the outreach worker is to establish a rapport and find out the basics, toward getting them off the street.”
There was so much interest in volunteering for this duty from Londoners in the first round of recruitment, there is now a waiting list.
“The really important thing is we’re engaging the public, in a way people might not normally do,” Ms Salva adds.
How do people end up on London’s streets?
Poverty is one obvious factor behind rough sleepers ending up on the streets but mental illness, or a sudden change in living situation can send circumstances spiralling quickly out of control, Ms Salva says.
“The reasons that people come off the streets and people are staying on the streets vary,” she says.
“It could be anything from that they weren’t comfortable in the hostels, to mental health needs. It could be addiction to alcohol or drugs [and] not [being] able to get treatment.”
Many people have also travelled to London in search of a better life and found themselves on the streets.
They hoped to find help to stay, but the capital’s social housing waiting lists are so long, often they are directed to find help elsewhere, Ms Salva adds.
This June, City Hall revealed the number of rough sleepers seen by outreach teams in London had dropped for the first time in a decade, decreasing by eight per cent to the 7,484 people seen in the 2017/18 financial year.
But those thousands continue to keep the St Mungo’s teams busy.
Late at night and early in the mornings, its outreach workers follow up on the first response volunteers’ tips, gleaned from StreetLink, also heading to known rough sleeping hot-spots to check on people, and to work out what they can do to help.
As people begin finding what shelter they can on the streets around 10pm, the outreach workers find some some familiar faces.
‘I don’t want to be sprawled in a heap’
Tam Glasgow’s makeshift bed is composed of piles of cardboard and yoga mats. He and three other people are taking shelter under a series of alcoves in Westminster.
Mr Glasgow says he is often woken by the rubbish trucks at 4.30am, but describes the building’s security as kind, usually waiting until about 7.30am to wake them and ask them to move.
“It is a handy spot because it’s reasonably safe,” he says. “I don’t want to be sprawled in a heap in front of a shop.”
He had been sleeping there for six weeks, but had been on the streets “on and off” about 10 years.
Previously he had been squatting in a commercial building in Whitechapel, but says the building's owner took the squatters to court to remove them.
He claims he was wrongly accused of antisocial behaviour, like defecating in the streets.
“I just happened to be parked on the street that is one of the central crack pick up points,” he says.
He shifted to Westminster and continued to sleep on the streets because he disliked London’s homeless hostels. He describes them as noisy, with sleep rarely achieved before 1am, and early wake-up calls.
He recently declined an offer of rental housing in north London, describing the monthly rent for a single room as the equivalent of “full benefits”.
He is friendly with St Mungo’s’ outreach workers, and says he wants to stay put for the night.
But he does want to find a way off the streets because it’s not easy. The last time his bag was stolen he lost everything he had.
Mr Glasgow shares the story of another rough sleeper, a friend, who had appeared mentally unwell and been barred from several hostels.
Having been forced onto the streets, he had his bag stolen too, losing all his medication.
Not long after this Mr Glasgow's friend committed suicide.
As he ends the story, he says simply: “He needed help and he didn’t get it.”
How you can help:
- The first response service has been operating in four boroughs: Westminster and Tower Hamlets since April, City of London since May and Islington since June and Southwark will be next in August.
- There are 12 shifts per week available, including four in Westminster and Tower Hamlets, and two weekly in the City and Islington.
- If you want to report sightings of rough sleepers you are concerned about, or you are homeless and wanting support services to find you, you can file sightings or ask for help by downloading the StreetLink app at www.streetlink.org.uk
- All St Mungo’s volunteer vacancies go on its website on the first Friday of every month at www.mungos.org/get-involved/volunteer/current-volunteering-opportunities