I headed back to the impressive Jerico Road project in Catford, South-East London last night. This church-based organisation offers very practical support to vulnerable adults – most of whom come to the project initially as rough sleepers. I got the chance to talk to Paul Foster, who very kindly shared his experiences recently. As he spoke to me, I realised that I’m starting to hear the same narrative, repeated by a number of vulnerable ex-offenders.
Paul, aged 34, is bipolar and describes himself as a recovering crack and heroin addict. He’s an intelligent man, who takes a keen interest in politics. What he can’t comprehend is why people are living on the streets at all. ‘Why are so many people starving and homeless? The money is there, but it’s just not directed at the right people.’
He was released from prison five months ago, at the end of a 10 month sentence for the £80 theft of washing machine liquid. This was just the latest in a long line of about 20 drug-related thefts. ‘Yes, I’m a repeat offender. The system doesn’t help drug addicts any more. Every time I go in front of a judge I get a custodial sentence.’ While in prison, he said he ‘built some bridges’ with his father. On leaving prison, he moved in with him – his mother having died a few years ago. But Paul became homeless when his father asked him to leave a month ago.
Paul then slept on the train from Victoria to Penge East for four days, before approaching a housing association for help in the London Borough of Bromley where he grew up. Instead of finding him somewhere to live in his borough, they placed him in an emergency hostel on the Old Kent Road – miles away and in an entirely different borough. This has left him stranded in one-roomed hostel accommodation above a pub. Paul’s comment on the suitability of the location for a person with an addictive personality sums it up succinctly enough for me: ‘If you’re a recovering crack and heroin addict you’re f***** .’ He’s also far from all the people who were helping him, including his mental health team, who knew him well. The only ‘support’ on hand, according to Paul, is a person who gets people their cereal in the mornings.
This 26-room unit is, says Paul, being used as accommodation for a number of African families – one family to a room. ‘Kids, mum and all – in the same room with one bed.’
His account echoes the picture given to me a few weeks ago here at the Jerico Road project by David Goddard, a 24-year-old with drug issues who was homeless and stole for food and drugs. He was arrested 10 times as he moved round the country – mostly for shoplifting food. He was released from prison earlier this year with no support in place. He ended up in a different hostel to Paul in South-East London, but was asked to leave that unit and has ended up squatting. The conditions he described at that hostel – men. women and young people sleeping in one communal room – sounded risky to say the least and I’m checking out the issues raised.
Paul has been in his emergency hostel for just under a week. He says the next step will be to see what the Bromley-based housing association will offer him next. Will it enable him to access support from his GP and the mental health team in his home borough – the people best placed to offer him proper help? I wish I could be more optimistic about his prospects, and I hope to post an update on this. Many thanks to Paul for speaking out.