Magazine article The Spectator

Cold Comfort

Magazine article The Spectator

Cold Comfort

Article excerpt

Boris Johnson claims his 'emergency shelter' keeps London's homeless off the freezing streets. I put it to the test.

An emergency shelter funded by theMayor of London, Boris Johnson, has been opened to offer a lifeline to rough sleepers in the capital whenever three consecutive nights of freezing temperature are predicted. Mr Johnson said: 'This shelter will offer a vital lifeline when temperatures tumble to sub-zero levels and rough sleepers risk losing their lives in the cold.'

Just how and why Dave and his mother, Nancy, came to be sleeping outside, in the corner of a car park, is too complicated and surreal a story to explain. But what you need to know is that there's no easy solution to their problem, and sleeping rough in itself isn't alarming or even unusual for them. Like any 77-year-old, Nancy has her troubles: swollen feet, swollen knuckles, and she's bent like the top of a shepherd's crook - but she's a trouper. She never complains, just says: 'Well dear, it can't be helped.' When I ask how she survives at night in the terrible cold, she says: 'Well, I've got gloves you see, dear, puffy ones, and blankets and an umbrella. And I sit in a chair, so it's not too bad.'

'Mother looks a right sight, ' says Dave.

He wears two hats: one bobble, one baseball;

two shirts, three fleeces and a jacket.

I've known Dave and Nancy for six years now. Six years' worth of chats at a weekly soup kitchen, and in that time they've slept out in all manner of horrid places. Nancy summers on a bench by the Thames; Dave once spent six months doggo from dusk to dawn on top of a storage unit. For a while last year they camped beside St Paul's in a tent full of rain and mice, and became the unofficial mascots of the 'Occupy' gang. And mostly, they seem OK.

Last Thursday, for the first time since I've known them, they were not OK. They'd been booted out from their car park just that day, said Dave, by a developer who wanted to smarten the place up. Moving on wasn't the problem but, not wanting to carry all their bedclothes around, they'd bundled them into a locker, which was now shut till morning. Neither had thought about the night to come, and it was due to freeze. 'What will you do?' Dave, usually resourceful, was stumped.

'Well, we don't know, do we mother?' As the other guests began to drift outside, I checked the forecast: minus 2. 'Oh Lord, Mother will probably die, ' said Dave, with a nervous laugh. 'Nonsense, ' said Nancy, and began to shuffle towards the door. 'Anyway dear, it can't be helped.'

It took a few seconds for the severity of their situation to pierce through what had been happy thoughts about my own dinner, still to come. But Dave was right. Left outside with no chair and no blankets, Nancy was in danger. Only the day before, passersby had reported seeing her half-frozen at a bus stop and called an ambulance. 'Angels of mercy, ' said Nancy. 'But I wasn't dying, I was just having a nap. The cold makes you sleepy, doesn't it?' Yes, if you're hypothermic.

So while Dave and Nancy edged towards the door, my friend Anna and I began a frantic online search: 'emergency help', 'homeless', 'winter'. And after a few hours, we'd discovered a curious fact. Though at first there seemed to be innumerable groups offering just what we needed, in the world of homeless charities, the phrase 'emergency shelter' has a very counter-intuitive meaning.

I tried Shelter first, 'the housing and homelessness charity' who offer 'free, emergency housing advice', but their helpline had closed. …

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