Caritas Anchor House grabbed the headlines last year when, after an epic struggle with HMRC, it forced the taxman to give up its quest to force a more than £1 million bill on the VAT-exempt charity. “I didn’t think the word ‘hostel’ made our residents feel at home,” CEO Keith Fernett explains, “so I took it off the website.” HMRC officials decided, contrary to all advice up to that point, that this meant the charity had changed its purpose. A vigorous campaign ensured the decision was overturned, but the cost of the case still meant a substantial loss of income for the charity, based in Canning Town, in the London borough of Newham.
Words, it turns out, matter, and Fernett has put the dignity of the homeless guests at the core of his mission since taking the helm at Anchor House in 2004. “When I came here I could not believe how disrespectful the staff in here were to the homeless residents,” he says. “They were just numbers, they were just bodies. What I saw across the homeless sector appalled me: that it was really for the workers rather than for the homeless.
“I won the first ever UK innovation award in the homeless sector for talking to my residents – and I couldn’t work out how that was innovative. I won the second for talking to the community – again, hardly an achievement but a huge change for this sector.”
The changes in Newham are in many ways illustrative of those facing the wider metropolis. After a half-century of continuous decline, the borough’s population began to turn around in the middle of the Thatcher years.
In the decade before the Olympics, London grew by eight per cent. In the same period, Newham’s population jumped by over 26 per cent. But while many parts of the borough rank among the most deprived in Britain, Canary Wharf is nearby, and luxury flats are being built by Canning Town station. “We’ve got members of the House of Lords living across the road from here,” Fernett points out. Any available sites are snapped up by developers catering to the higher end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, the middle are feeling increasingly squeezed, putting downward pressure on the already hard-pressed, lowest-earning end of the spectrum.
Fernett says the situation has “changed radically” in recent years. “We’ve got grandmothers with 23 grandkids at the moment where the landlord wanted to increase the rent by £50 a week. Even when there is affordable housing the government now defines ‘affordable’ as 80 per cent of the market rate. That’s not affordable for people who work in a shop or people who clean the streets or who’re on the minimum wage.”
Despite tax woes and housing crises, Anchor House carries on doing what it does, and even aside from temporary housing the list of the charity’s programmes is almost exhausting to hear. Education, training, skills acquisition, one-to-one support, work experience and more are all tailored to the individual, and all with the aim of getting the homeless out of Anchor House and back in charge of their lives.
“A lot of stereotypes can be created around the homeless,” says Ray, a former HR professional now living at Anchor House. “They’re lazy, substance abusers, violent and all the rest of it. I come from the kind of very, very different route.” Ray moved out of Newham 14 years ago as a successful recruitment consultant. “I bought a huge house in Frinton-on-Sea, driving Range Rovers, the whole lot.” But divorce, unpaid loans and dodgy lending companies took a combined toll. “To go from running your own business for the last 14 years to sleeping on the concrete is a huge wake-up call. I’ve got family who tried to look after me but even they become – what’s the word? Compassion fatigued. So you end up on the concrete.”
Londoners facing homelessness often meet a brick wall when they get in touch with their local council. Despite being a London-wide phenomenon, homelessness is strictly within the purview of the 32 London boroughs. People verging on homelessness or just recently out onto the streets are considered low priority and ignored. “There is a postcode lottery,” Fernett says. “It’s disgraceful. We get £49 a week to try and sort their lives out. To put it in perspective, in the City of Westminster some of our people would get in excess of £200 a week.”
One resident was given a week’s work experience in Iain Duncan Smith’s office and is now on a local panel giving advice to young offenders. Another became Anchor House’s first head of education and learning and went on to earn a PhD from New York University. “The point is,” Fernett continues, “we took a view that we’re going to advocate on behalf of the homeless and we’re not going to show a homeless person in a hoodie with a fricking dog on the street. I’m sorry, but that’s what St Mungo’s and everybody do. We’ve argued for positivity, and our results have been up to 400 per cent better than theirs.”
In spite of all this, Anchor House is focused on making every penny work, and the results are impressive. Fernett brought in Oxford Economics to sort through data the charity collected and compare it against research from elsewhere. “It came back that for every pound invested, £3.98 of benefit accrues to society. So we’ve got a £2.5 million turnover – we’re saving society 10 million quid every year.”
Still, Fernett wishes Anchor House had more support from the faithful. “The Catholic community is not pulling its weight,” he asserts. Parishes and schools prefer to give to Cafod and try to solve problems a thousand miles away rather than deal with the poor on their doorstep. While Anchor House sits just over the diocesan boundary in Brentwood, the Diocese of Westminster bought a building nearby for more than £3 million to house just 14 homeless. “The Cardinal Hume Centre with 32 bed spaces gets more Supporting People grant than we do for 140 bed spaces.”
In an overall worsening situation, there are some signs of hope. Bob Blackman MP’s Homelessness Reduction Bill (with Government backing) will give councils a statutory responsibility to look after their homeless and those on the cusp of homelessness. Given his experience with his own council, however, Fernett is more cautious than optimistic.
“Newham last year sent us 600 people,” he says, “and what that illustrates is it’s just not going away. It’s getting worse.”
Andrew Cusack is a writer and web designer who volunteers with the Order of Malta
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.