London-born Laraine McHendrie-Décarie was once in the running for the Great Britain swimming team. The 64-year-old ended up representing Canada in the 1986 World Swimming Masters in Tokyo and after years spent working and travelling around the world she returned to the UK in 2016. Within days she was sleeping rough.
Locked out of her state pension after the qualifying age changed and robbed by fraudsters, she spent four years sleeping rough on church steps and in doorways across the capital.
But now those hard times appear to be coming to an end thanks to a £30,000 fundraising campaign.
“Anything that I’d accumulated in my lifetime, including all my savings was stolen by identity fraud,” she said.
“Initially I started sleeping on a bench at the church after a priest kindly let me stay there. I’d got the mentality that, okay, this is only for a number of hours at night.”
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After Laraine braved the cold and Covid-19 on the streets, two volunteers from homelessness support group Under One Sky started a crowdfunding campaign to offer her a path off the streets.
The £30,000 raised has helped Laraine, who suffers with arthritis, into hotel accommodation while a permanent home is sought.
“I think they’re exceptional,” she said of Monica White and Vicki Mcgarrigle, who helped her get back on her feet. “I think they should be up for an award. They have taken it upon themselves and they are like angels from heaven.
“I love my country and we have the money so we really should change this for the better in the future, even if it didn’t totally benefit me I hope that in future generations homelessness won’t be an issue. I hope people in the future won’t have to go through this.”
Laraine swam in national competitions putting her on the brink of the Great Britain swimming team but competed for Canada in the prestigious FINA Masters in the eighties after moving there to work as a nanny.
While in North America, Laraine learned French and earned a degree in social work at Montreal’s McGill University.
She returned to England in 1996 and worked as a teacher and as a social worker before moving to France in 2014 to work for a Catholic community organisation.
After moving back to England in April 2016, Laraine claims she was left with no cash and no choice but to sleep rough. In the day she volunteered at several churches, by night Laraine would take shelter in London’s Euston station or at McDonald’s and slept on church steps.
“I’m quite fortunate in the sense that I was trained in many things growing up – took leadership courses, survival courses, trained as an athlete – and that I studied at university as well,” she said. ”So I didn’t get treated quite as appallingly, as some people might have done in the same situation. I tried to support the others that were also on the street.
“I’m blessed in a way because I managed to maintain my self-esteem and confidence whereas I think a lot of people lost that when they’re on the street.”
Laraine planned to sleep rough until she could access her state pension but insisted that she has been stuck on the streets as she has been unable to receive “any money whatsoever” from the Government. Because she did not have any digital access she could not sign up to Universal Credit.
The state pension age reached 66 for people born between 1954 and 1960 in October 2020, meaning Laraine still faced another 18-month wait to access her funds. She was also waiting on a private pension.
Laraine claimed she found it difficult to access help because she “didn’t really fit into any categories” and chose to sleep rough through the January cold snap rather than accept the offer of accommodation as she worried it would not be a “safe place” for a woman her age.
They have taken it upon themselves and they are like angels from heaven
That inspired Monica and Vicki to act and their GoFundMe campaign has raised £30,000 to support Laraine off the streets for good. The pair are now supporting her to apply for Universal Credit.
Monica said: “What I find incredible is despite Laraine being on the streets, she’s used her skills and her qualifications in social work, to giving advice to everyone on staying on a church step like her.
“We are committing now to being Laraine’s support in the long-term. We are trying our hardest and if Laraine didn’t have me and Vicki, there’s no way she would have been able to do this.”
Vicki added: “We went down to tell Laraine about the money and when we found her going to the steps, it was amazing. We told her we were able to get a hotel for her and she just said: “I’m so tired.” It was a special moment.”