Shelters from the storm

Sleeping rough is bad enough if you're young. Imagine it at the age of 80.
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The Independent Culture
TERRY WANTS to tell his story. He's sitting in a chair in the lounge sipping beer from a cupand looking at me with urgent eyes. Terry once worked for the Ministry of Defence, as a low-ranking civil servant, and lived in Thamesmead, south London, with his wife and two children, playing and touring in a pub rock band in his spare time.

As Terry approached middle age, though, his life began to unravel. First, his wife left him for her boss, leaving him to look after their children. A couple of years later, he gave up his job. "I had to look after the kids, kids are important," he says, waving his finger, taking a sip of Tennents Super. Then the band split up, meaning he lost his main hobby and, given the way he talks about it now, the only other thing that made his life fulfilling.

A while later - Terry isn't sure about dates - his house was repossessed. He went straight to a charity shelter and has been homeless since - about 10 years- and will probably remain so until he dies. He never saw Samantha, his daughter, again, though his son James still visits him.

Terry is 58 and sits telling me all this in the clean, warm lounge of the Robertson Street project, a home in south London for the elderly homeless. The idea of grandparents spending their nights slumped in doorways is horrendous, even in a society where respect for our elders is becoming a concept of the past. Appalling though homelessness is, it is somehow more comforting for our under-used consciences to imagine those sleeping rough as young and fit. Yet every night some 300 grandparents, some in their seventies and eighties, try to sleep on the streets of London. As well as the daily survival ritual suffered by all their fellow homeless, they have to cope with illness, susceptibility to the cold and all the other problems that age brings and homelessness accentuates.

Robertson Street is run by Bondway, a charity based in London. Although the housing project itself is funded by local authorities and the Government, Bondway relies on charitable donations to fund its daily soup run for the elderly homeless, taking in hundreds of people on the streets of London. The oldest resident is 79; the oldest regular queueing up for the soup run is 82. Several have long forgotten the details of their lives, often sporadically dotted with periods of homelessness. Most of the residents are in their sixties and seventies. Some 200 can sleep in the dormitories of one of Bondway's shelters and 41 are catered for, fed and lodged, many with their own clean, modern bedrooms, at Robertson Street.

"A lot of the people at Robertson Street are people with alcohol or mental health problems or distinctive personalities who would quite likely end up sleeping on the streets otherwise," says Nick Dunn, one of the charity's directors. Many have been rejected by council care homes because of their drinking habits. At Robertson Street residents are allowed to drink from cans of the ubiquitous Tennents Super; they wouldn't stay otherwise. Mr Dunn says there are many more on the waiting list.

The dignity afforded to these elderly gentlemen (there are a few women, but most of the old homeless are male) is evident from one look at the airy lounge, where six or seven of them sit all day in armchairs, not saying anything much. "I'm happy here because wee Jimmy's wi' me," says John, who is 62, in broadest Glaswegian, pointing at the next chair. Jimmy has slept rough on and off since coming down to London at the end of the Second World War.

These men are the fortunate ones, because every evening they have something to eat and somewhere warm to pass the dying years of their lives. There are hundreds of others who lie, forgotten by their families and friends, the experience of their lives compressed into one quick line ("please help, sir, I fought the Japs in '42"), on the pavements and in the doorways along the route of everybody's commute home.

Bondway Housing Association: 0171-582 1232