Young mums at the winter fair in Stockwell, South London. Image: Evolve Housing + Support
Christmas classics sing out from the courtyard and fairy lights hang between the trees, as a young mother chases her toddler and an asylum seeker helps hang up the last of the decorations.
It is the start of the festivities in this hostel for people facing homelessness in South London, run by charity Evolve Housing + Support. There are more than 50 residents at this site, some of whom have just arrived and others who have lived here for years.
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The winter fair is a chance for residents, staff and volunteers to gather together and mark the start of the Christmas season, a time which can be isolating for people experiencing homelessness.
“Christmas is a particularly hard time for a lot of people, but particularly those who are excluded from society,” says Tom Markwell, head of operations at Evolve. “There’s the perception that everyone is having a lovely time and they’re very much alone.”
Staff and volunteers started working early in the morning until dark to make the space look festive and welcoming for residents, with children’s craft activities laid out and non-alcoholic mulled wine and canapés served up.
They are trying their best to make it a warm and inviting environment, but the reality is they are faced with a bleak backdrop as homelessness hits record levels. More than 105,000 households are living in temporary accommodation, according to the government’s most recent statistics.
This includes 138,930 homeless children living in temporary accommodation between April and July this year, and the situation only gets worse over winter periods. And these figures don’t include the numbers of people living in supported accommodation like those run by Evolve – there are hundreds of people living in their sites across London alone.
“We deal with homelessness throughout the whole year,” Markwell says. “It’s rubbish for people who are homeless whatever time it is. But there’s a lot of focus on it now because it’s so cold. We take in people when it’s below zero degrees to save lives.”
Two 22-year-old women, who have asked to remain anonymous, sit chatting together by the Christmas tree, one with a toddler perched on her knee. “We have to move from here,” the young mother tells The Big Issue. “We can’t stay here forever.”
She has lived in supported accommodation run by Evolve for three years, and in this one in Lambeth since May. Her friend arrived at the same time. Both women say they are grateful for the support they have received and the community they have found, but they are ready to move on.
“We’ve all been through the same thing,” the second woman says. “We’re all in the same situation. But I think we’re all ready for our own space now.”
The people supported by Evolve have come from a range of backgrounds: they are young mothers and their children, asylum seekers and people struggling with their mental health.
Many of them have complex needs and the charity works to support them with a range of services – health and wellbeing support, education and employment opportunities and mentoring programmes. And once they feel ready, and accommodation becomes available, they can move on.
Donna, a psychotherapist at Evolve who helps people navigate their mental health struggles, says: “Mental health has rocketed – people are suffering post-Covid and with the economic situation. More than ever we have access to world events: Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, Palestine. People absorb all of that as human beings.
“Even though things are happening in our personal lives, we take those things in. There might be a breakdown of the family, all of those things are hugely impactful on mental health. We’re seeing that. We’re seeing a lot more people suffer from anxiety, PTSD and even psychosis.”
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year chimes out in the courtyard as staff chat among themselves and residents come in and out, but there is no escape from homelessness at Christmas.
There is a lot of pain here, but there is plenty of hope to be found too in this community of people living alongside each other. These are people who are often shunned by society – and by our own government.
At this winter fair at a hostel in South London, even if just for one night, everyone is welcome underneath the fairy lights between the trees before they are turned off and put away for next year.
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