Charity tries to help as increasing numbers forced to sleep rough on London’s streets

An Irish-born accountant is doing his best to help the homeless

Damian McCabe, aged 22 years, from Co Meath. After 6 months sleeping rough, he has found housing with the help of the voluntary group, Hope for Havering. Photo: Joanne O’Brien

Damian McCabe, aged 22 years, from Co Meath. After 6 months sleeping rough, he has found housing with the help of the voluntary group, Hope for Havering. Photo: Joanne O’Brien

 

Each night, a group of up to 15 homeless men gather in Jubilee House, an evangelical church in Romford on the outskirts of London.

Fed and watered, the men – the membership of the group changes constantly – are taken by a homeless charity, Hope4Havering to other churches to spend the night.

“We’re a bit of a wandering caravan,” says Irish-born accountant, Ken Gannon, who has become more involved in charitable work since he was the victim of an assault last year.

The number of homeless in England has jumped for the third year in a row, fuelled by the impact of welfare benefit changes, the break-up of marriages, unemployment and immigration.

Damian McCabe, from Navan, Co Meath, is one of those helped by Hope4Havering, after his life descended into chaos first with a prison term for robbery and then with homelessness.

“It ended up with me kipping under a bridge in Romford. It was very, very bad,” he recalls, speaking in Westminster before a night sleep-out by the charity to increase public attention on the issue. “It was violent, drunk, disorderly, it’s horrendous living like that,” said the diminutive McCabe, who came to Britain in 2007 when he was just 16.

He received a 3½ year jail sentence for a knifepoint robbery of a woman in her 30s: “All she had was £6 in her purse and a mobile phone,” he told The Irish Times shamefacedly.

“She’s still really angry with me, I know. I rightly regret it now, I can tell you,” he goes on, though he adds that the attack came after his welfare benefit was stopped.

‘Bills to pay’
“They said I didn’t turn up for an appointment, but I was there, I was. They sanctioned me for four weeks. I told them that I had bills to pay,” he went on. Following his release from jail, McCabe returned to live with his partner in a bed-sit, but that relationship soon collapsed – an outcome that sent the Navan man on to the streets. Today, however, matters have improved. Having been sent to Jubilee House, he moved this week into one of the houses that the charity now leases in Essex.

The rules are strict, says the charity’s co-founder, Kim Merry: “We have no problems with our neighbours because we have no trouble. No drink, no drugs, no overnight guests.

“We believe that we have a model that works. We reduce crime, we reduce hospital admissions,” she goes on, adding that the numbers of women with children becoming homeless is rising steadily.

Last week, a report by the respected Joseph Rowntree Foundation and a homeless agency, Crisis warned that homelessness in London has jumped by 13 per cent in a year. The fastest-growing group threatened with a housing crisis are those in private tenancies, unable to meet the demands for extra rent in a city where accommodation costs are escalating.

Earlier this year, Ken Gannon led mourners in Leytonstone, who paid respects at the funeral of a homeless Zimbabwean man, Eddie Kuwateedza. He had died of a stroke in a yard behind a pub, his death unnoticed for days. Having come with ambitions to become an accountant, his path to homelessness began in 2007 when he lost a factory job.

‘Coffee and a beer’

“I had bought him coffee and a beer over the years,” said Gannon, before beginning a passionate demand that empty properties should be opened to house those living on the streets.

“People are dying on the streets,” he went on, as he introduces Tony Bennett, a one-time cocaine addict whose children were taken away from him by social services.

Bennett came to Hope4Havering a year ago, his life a shambles: “I can’t thank them enough, I can only imagine where I would be now without them,” he says.

Not everyone can be helped, the Irish man concedes: “There will be some who will take advantage, no matter what precautions you take. But I don’t care. You help who you can.”