London: Homeless Festival Was a Stark Reminder of How Bad Things Have Got

Immersed in the fun of Streets Fest, you could have been excused for forgetting, just for a day, how vast a crisis homelessness in Britain has become.

Unless, of course, your first sight after walking out of Finsbury Park tube station – towards the health and wellbeing festival for homeless and vulnerably housed people – was a rough sleeper, apparently lifeless and surrounded by paramedics, as mine was this Monday morning.

It was a brutal sign of the times and a stark reminder of why charities are tasked with picking up where those with the power to change the fate of thousands have fallen down. And it is happening in a country where more than 8,000 people are forced to sleep rough on any one night, and at least 300,000 face homelessness. This is an era in which grassroots organisations, such as Streets Kitchen, find themselves having to host a special event – by some cruel irony, in one of the nation’s homelessness hotspots – to offer basic services to vulnerable people. It seems we have reached peak austerity Britain.

Streets Fest, a one-day carnival in London’s Finsbury Park, staged to provide a “one-stop shop” for vital services for those most in need, is a radical move. It is believed to be the first event of its kind, but it is clearly needed. The turnout and engagement with support agencies is revealing of the colossal gulf between the provisions available in the mainstream and the true degree of demand at street level.

Organisations with clothing and blankets, as well as others offering advice on physical and mental health, substance use, housing, wellbeing, education and employment help hundreds of people throughout the day. Yet it is the stalls fulfilling the most basic of human necessities that are overwhelmed by the scale of the need. Two groups give out free meals to at least 300 people.

Rapid Relief Team, a volunteer-run not-for-profit specialising in providing catering in the wake of crises such as those following the Grenfell Tower fire and London Bridge terror attack last year, runs out of food less than three hours after the festival starts, despite bringing more than double the number of meals it expected to hand out. “We don’t know when these people last had a square meal,” says Ben Napthine, the organisation’s London and southeast team leader.

For others, it is the hope of a proper wash that draws them to Streets Fest. Friends Dan, 48, and Andrew, 41, sit on a bench with a cup of tea, waiting for their first hot shower in a week. They have travelled from Walthamstow. “We had a local homelessness centre where you could get a shower daily, but it closed,” says Dan. “Then we could go to London Bridge, but that has since closed too. Now we have a big problem with showers.”

More than 50 haircuts, 22 X-rays and 18 dental referrals are also given. StreetVet, meanwhile, sees a dozen dogs in its tent, with this service proving critical for people who say their pets are all the family they have. Stephen’s beloved staffy, who’s been his “best friend” for 14 years, receives a thorough check-up. “He got everything he needed,” the 50-year-old says. “Worming, flea treatment, checked his tag, gave us food, water bowl, toys, a new harness.”

The day, for some, is an opportunity to look to a positive future too. Lisa, 18, and her girlfriend are sofa surfing and have three months left in their current place. Stonewall Housing and the Outside Project gives them guidance on what to do when they find themselves on the streets again. “I can’t rent somewhere,” says Lisa, “I can’t even afford lunch at my college […] but [the organisations] gave us some good advice. They have a housing scheme, so we’d need to get assessed and it could help us into a tenancy.”

Also supporting Streets Fest is the local Haringey and Islington councils. They say they understand the disastrous situation and believe they know how to fix it. “We recognise the madness of Tory austerity continues, and looks like it’s going to continue for quite a while,” Diarmaid Ward, Islington Council’s executive member for housing and development, says after a walk around the stalls. “We’ve got 14,000 people on our housing register looking for a home, rough sleeping has gone through the roof and it’s our job as councillors to be at the heart of resolving this. Anybody can find themselves homeless in this day and age; the safety nets are rapidly disappearing. Four words: build more council houses. That’s it [the solution] in a nutshell.”

Emina Ibrahim, deputy leader of Haringey Council, says it’s important to raise awareness of the growing problem of homelessness. “More and more people are dying on the streets in London,” she adds. “The reality is that central government needs to build more housing and recognise that there are multiple vulnerabilities that lead people to be sleeping on the street. What we’d ultimately want to get to in Haringey is no second night on the street.”

The art, jamming and dancing going on around us provides a little light relief, a welcome break from the melancholy backdrop to this event. A moment of solemn reflection ensues in the poetry corner as a mother delivers a profound spoken word performance recalling the moving story of how her son was stabbed eight years ago – an all too topical theme in 2018.

As the sun sets on Streets Fest, while people squeeze in the final dance of the day, it’s impossible to overlook that this moment of escapism – and the warm embrace of an abundance of support and community solidarity concentrated in a small section of a north London park – is coming to an abrupt end for most of those here. Many are going back to tents and sleeping bags.

Only, they aren’t sleeping in fields, but atop cold, hard concrete under bridges, along roads and in bushes. And those inside won’t be staying there for a weekend with the promise of a hot bath and cosy bed after a few days of revelry. These are “homes” for the long haul. As another winter approaches, England’s homeless population once again prepares to brace itself for the cruel months ahead, mustering the fight to survive against the harsh elements and a system that promises little hope for permanent refuge anytime soon.

Jon Glackin of Streets Kitchen promises, however, that this Streets Fest is not going to be a one-off. “Hundreds of homeless people came,” he says. “Events like this are important. People are dying on the streets, I’m sick of going to funerals. We can do it [put this on again]. I’ve seen a lot of shiny, happy people with new haircuts, new clothes on and a spring in their step. People are asking, ‘When’s the next one?'”