Uncertain future for people camping out at disused dairy, reports James Cracknell
Fears are growing over the fate of vulnerable rough sleepers in the borough after Waltham Forest Council decided to shut down a “safe village” for homeless people.
In April volunteers helped set up ‘Project Parker’ for rough sleepers at the former Parker Dairies warehouse in Wood Street, which closed in 2017. With help from the owners of Eggs & Bread, a nearby non-profit cafe, and after obtaining permission from the landlord, twelve skips of rubbish were cleared from the disused industrial site to establish the camp. A crowdfunder raised nearly £10,000 to fund the project and at the peak of the pandemic around 40 people were staying there – being served hot meals every day.
But in May the council warned that the operators of the camp were breaching planning laws and ordered the occupants to leave. The authority later delayed enforcement action and started working with Project Parker residents to help find them temporary accommodation. Placements were found for 17 people who had been based there, but up to 24 still remained at the end of June as a second planning enforcement deadline loomed.
Government funding to support the placement of rough sleepers in hotels during the pandemic has been extended into July, but may not last beyond the summer. The government has so far rejected calls from campaigners to remove its ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy which restricts access to public services and welfare benefits for people with uncertain immigration status.
Tommy Anderson, who runs homeless charity Tommy’s Kitchen and has been serving meals at Project Parker, told the Echo: “There are six people at Project Parker with no recourse to public funds. They could end up back on the streets, but they will run the risk of being reported to the Home Office.
“If there is no more government funding for putting homeless people in hotels it will be down to the council to fund it – and they’ve got no money.”
Tommy is a health and safety officer for Unite the Union and disputes the council’s claims that Project Parker has been an unsafe place for homeless people to stay. He added: “We wanted to give these people a roof over their heads and prevent anti-social behaviour. The council claimed it was unsafe but we got a fire safety certificate, the volunteers have been DBS [Disclosure and Barring Service] checked and they’ve had first aid training.”
A petition to save Project Parker was signed by nearly 3,000 people but the council has re-iterated its intention to close it.
Councillor Louise Mitchell, cabinet member for housing and homelessness prevention, said: “Since April, Waltham Forest Council has offered all rough sleepers with ties to the borough temporary accommodation. We are now working with these 58 individuals to provide help and support on a range of issues and to ensure they can move to more permanent accommodation. This not only includes support around housing but access to GPs, mental health and other medical services.
“We have been in contact with the owners and managers of the old dairy site in Wood Street following concerns from residents around a homeless camp set up in the yard. Officers have been talking with people on site offering alternative accommodation to those with ties to Waltham Forest and referring those without ties to GLA [Greater London Authority] homelessness services.
“We have serious concerns about the safety and suitability of this encampment.”
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.”