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The search for homeless people in Canterbury on a cold overnight rough sleeper count

As temperatures plunge, getting the homeless into the warmth and off the streets is a priority. But it’s more complex than it seems, as reporter Jack Dyson finds out during an overnight rough sleeper count in a city centre...

It’s late. Darkness envelopes the city’s streets and the sharp chill of the wintry air is becoming increasingly acute.

Shivering, I’m stood in the centre of Watling Street car park at 11pm with an assortment of people from Canterbury City Council and Porchlight. We’re set to embark on a rough sleeper count.

A neatly arranged sleeping bag and pillow outside Wilko
A neatly arranged sleeping bag and pillow outside Wilko

For the next three hours, the group of outreach workers will walk through the city to monitor the homeless, tell them how they can be helped off the streets and offer them accommodation for the night.

Despite the fact the council’s severe weather protocol (Swep) – which provides added beds for rough sleepers when temperatures are expected to fall below freezing – has been in place for more than a week, just six people are taking advantage of the extra spaces tonight.

This gives this rough sleeper count even more significance than usual.

Before we start our rounds, Daniel Gould, the local authority’s street population co-ordinator, briefs the group on what needs to be done.

“We’re going to be looking to speak to one man in particular,” he adds. “He’s usually around Tesco.”

Before I’m able to find out any more, the group peels off into twos; with each pair covering a different part of the city centre. I find myself following Lora McCourt, from the council, and Porchlight’s James Moorhouse along Watling Street.

Dan Gould from Canterbury City Council
Dan Gould from Canterbury City Council

“So who is he?” I ask Lora.

“There are individuals who we have particular concerns for – and this man is one of them,” she responds.

“He has some health issues and the team has identified him as a person of concern who we’re really keen to work with and get off the street.”

As we round the corner into Castle Street, we see a thin sleeping bag surrounded by detritus in the centre of a doorway.

With each step, the outline of a gaunt man no older than 30 with grey, tired skin becomes clearer.

A discoloured dressing is strewn on the floor nearby, while the packaging for a new one lies behind him and the smell of fetid skin permeates through the air. It’s the man we’re looking for.

“How’s your leg – is it painful?” Lora asks.

Lora McCourt from Canterbury City Council
Lora McCourt from Canterbury City Council

“Yeah,” he says, feebly.

“That’s not off your leg, that dressing, is it?”

“Yeah, I changed it just this minute.”

After calling one of their colleagues, who has been dealing with the man for some time, to tell her where he is, we head on.

As we continue along Castle Street, Lora tells me the group is hoping to be able to take him to hospital the next morning for treatment on his ulcerated leg and to collect his prescribed methadone.

“He’s a complex fellow,” she adds. “He’s been accessing our services for a long time. If he wanted to be off the streets, we could do it tomorrow – but he’d have to be ready.

“Sometimes this job is heartbreaking because you’re walking away from someone who you just want to take home.

"They’re so, so vulnerable and you just want to make it better for them, but you’ve got to respect their decisions.

"This is because it’s all about building trust and we can’t do that if we’re too pushy.”

Stephen Winter lying in the doorway of Debenhams
Stephen Winter lying in the doorway of Debenhams

It’s a method that’s proved successful. Since September, 45 rough sleepers have been moved into permanent accommodation through the combined work of Porchlight, the council and Catching Lives.

We continue to scour doorways, shop fronts, tucked-away alleyways and pitch-black car parks for any other rough sleepers. and soon find ourselves in Burgate, where the number of rough sleepers seems to be highest. Several men curled up in sleeping bags lie on the cold pavements that line the street.

We come across a pair with eastern European accents, who turn down the opportunity to sleep indoors for the night.

“There are people here who don’t have access to public funds,” Lora says as we walk further along Burgate.

“With free movement people have the right to come over here to secure work, but they’re only entitled to assistance through housing and benefits if they’re working.

"Sometimes we have people who come over here for seasonal work and so during the off-season they find it really difficult because we can’t get them into services.”

Outside The Cuban nightclub, the bass from the music inside can be heard thudding away, while the drunken chatter of those waiting to get inside buzzes through the High Street.

Metres away from this hive of activity, a man lies fast asleep next to Debenhams with his back to the club.

A mattress and blankets outside Entertainment Exchange in Canterbury
A mattress and blankets outside Entertainment Exchange in Canterbury

His name is Stephen Winter, and he turns down the chance to have a bed for the night. I ask him why.

“I can’t stand the snoring of it, mate,” explains the 53-year-old. “It’s too much because it’s one big place with everyone in there.”

“But you’re outside Cuban!”

“That’ll be quiet soon and I’ll be able to get some sleep anyway.”

Originally from Gillingham, Stephen says he became homeless more than five years ago when his landlord decided to convert his home into student flats. He was working as a dustman at the time.

“I want to get off the streets, but it’s very hard adjusting to a place again,” he continues. “This time of year it’s very, very cold. A lot of people find it difficult, but I’m used to it now.”

It’s almost 1am, three hours after we set off. In all, we’ve counted 16 rough sleepers, but the outreach workers are aware of seven others. Three more are in emergency accommodation. Over the course of the night they have not managed to convince anyone to sleep indoors, proving yet again just how complex the issue of homelessness is.

The council urges anyone concerned about a rough sleeper to call Catching Lives during the day on 01227 464904 or the authority’s control room out of hours on 01227 781879. Alternatively, download the StreetLink app.

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