Homeless charities warn of worst winter

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The Independent Online

Who would welcome awakening on a camp bed in an office on Christmas Day? Scott Littlejohns, for one. And Charles Lassalle. And 400 others who would be out on the streets were it not for the volunteers staffing the homeless centre that borrowed the building for the festive week.

Charities predict this could be the busiest winter for homeless shelters in years. Crisis, the charity running this centre in east London and many others, has warned that homelessness is on the rise – and that life expectancy among those sleeping rough is a pitiful 47, meaning their efforts are more important than ever.

Through some eyes the location could barely be more bleak: an office block that has not found a new tenant for three years, dividing this soulless outer-east London estate from the taunting lights of Canary Wharf's banking headquarters in the distance.

Mr Littlejohns, 19, doesn't see it like that. "It's amazing here, the view of Docklands. There's so much to do, so many people to interact with."

Indeed, as depressing as it looks outside, the work going on inside is a marvel. Guests are given access to medical treatment – dentists, chiropodists, X-rays for TB – as well as plenty of games, the chance to socialise, and a concert by the Cheeky Girls.

Mr Littlejohns became homeless four months ago after the worst run of luck anyone could be dealt. He speaks of an abusive father, an epileptic mother in hospital with cancer, and an aunt with Down's syndrome who had to chuck him out to stop her housing association from throwing her out too. "If I wasn't here, I'd be sleeping rough on a street corner on Christmas Day."

While Mr Littlejohns is here because of a troubling family life, Mr Lassalle, 39, is a victim of the economic crisis. He became homeless after losing his job in April, and before arriving he had spent two weeks sleeping on the 29 bus as the only means of escape from the pavement.

One solace this year is the unseasonably mild weather. But Duncan Shrubsole, the policy director at Crisis, explained that it is the emotional aspect of being homeless at Christmas that makes the work so vital.

The problem, however, is only expected to become worse in the new year, when cuts to housing benefits begin to hit tenants. All the more credit to the volunteers, therefore, who, Mr Shrubsole said, give up their time for all kinds of reasons.

"Sometimes it's people who would be a bit lonely themselves over Christmas – dads in the first year of their divorce, or people who used to be homeless themselves and want to come back and help."