Walthamstow tent village to remain open until occupants are rehoused

A Walthamstow “safe village” sheltering homeless people during lockdown that was told to shut down by the council will not close until its remaining 24 occupants are housed.

Project Parker was set up in a former dairy depot on Wood Street on April 27, providing a temporary shelter for those still waiting for accommodation.

On May 26, Waltham Forest Council wrote to the landlord threatening to serve an enforcement notice if it was not shut down, as the building’s change of use had not been authorised.

The project’s organisers – Tommy Anderson, Wayne Walton and Guy Wilson – say they are frustrated by how much opposition they have received from the council when trying to help.

A petition asking the council not to shut down the project has been signed more than 2,800 times.

Wayne Walton said: “This whole site was never meant to be ideal, it’s a temporary response. Our aim was for people to come here for two weeks at most.

“Some of these people were sleeping in the forest, in doorways or behind dustbins. What we do, it’s a little bit more secure, at least they know there’s somebody here who’s going to look after them.

“We never asked the council for a penny. All they had to do is direct the outreach team to come here, we were prepared to do what we needed to help accommodate these people.

“For all the help we were trying to give, it’s sad that the council were trying to put up obstacles.”

He said it was understandable who the council could have missed many of the homeless in the borough, who were often moved on by police before they could be found by outreach teams.

The shelter had seen people who had been beaten and robbed while sleeping rough and at least one woman “escaping for her life”.

However, he said that since June 8, they had not seen any of the remaining 24 occupants rehoused, with more rough sleepers showing up that they have had to turn away.

Guy Wilson, 40, who runs Wood Street cafe Egg and Bread offering daily free breakfasts, agreed the council has a hard job without sufficient government funds.

He said: “The council has done a lot of work in this period and we know it’s not an easy job. Their resources and energies are going left, right and centre, while we are focusing on one small part of the community.

“That said, a lot of energy has been spent trying to shut us down in one way or another.”

When the project was set up, the council had got 48 rough sleepers into accommodation but it was evident there were still many on the streets.

Guy said: “Because of the lockdown, it was getting quite desperate for them. It got to the point where the only toilets they could use were Egg and Bread until 11pm and one in the town hall.

“We had one washing machine, one shower and breakfast, trying to feed dozens of people. Meanwhile we were being told we should not be open because there were no more homeless people.

“It’s not the case that if these people were not here they would get all the support they need. Without this help, their situation would be dire.

“We can see the change on their faces when they come here. Some of them have hardly got a good night’s sleep in ages.”

The council’s objections to the shelter include concerns over the safety of its occupants and the risk of disturbance to nearby businesses and residents.

While Tommy Anderson, 66, admitted none of the three were “experts” he “totally disputed” any suggestion he had not taken the occupants’ safety seriously. 

He said: “The fire brigade have been here five times, they gave us fire extinguishers, fire blankets and gave us some advice on how to make the place more safe.

“I’m also a fire marshall for one of the biggest employers in London and a health and safety officer for Unite union. I’m CRB checked by the police and court, I have got a certificate for that, as does Wayne.

“We take these concerns very seriously and we abide by the two metres distance rule. For them to imply that we are not treating people’s lives responsibly, I totally totally dispute that.”

Cllr Louise Mitchell, who is responsible for housing and homelessness prevention, said officers were on site offering alternative accommodation to those with ties to the borough and referring those without to the Greater London Authority.

She said: “We have been in contact with the owners and managers of the old dairy site in Wood Street following concerns from residents in the area around a homeless camp set up in the yard.

“We have serious concerns about the safety and suitability of this encampment, in particular the lack of suitable fire precautions. The site also has no washing facilities and no proper arrangements for social distancing and basic hygiene.

“We are also concerned around the apparent lack of DBS checks on those working with some of the vulnerable people living on the site.

“We have a responsibility to ensure not only the safety of those on the site but also the residents that live in the local area. We continue to try and work with those living and working on the site to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all concerned.”

The letter sent to the building’s owner mentions the lack of insulation or fireproofing on temporary wooden structures and “unacceptable noise and disturbance for local business and residents”.

It claims the project has caused “an increased risk of anti-social behaviour” in and around the site and “distress to the residents of, and visitors to, the surrounding areas”.

A London Fire Brigade spokesperson said: “An Inspecting Officer has visited the Wood Street site to support the council’s enforcement team and we continue to work closely with them due to a number of fire safety concerns.”

Regarding the future of the project once it has shut down, Guy said they were “in the early stages” of turning the area into a workshop, where rough sleepers could be employed to upcycle furniture.

The proposal would allow the area to be used as a day centre, while also ensuring the building remains in “light industrial use”, as required by the planning team.

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Victoria Munro

Local Democracy Reporter