Concerns are growing for a group of rough sleepers living in tents outside the Imperial War Museum in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park.
The long-term encampment has grown in recent weeks and, with the temperature set to drop, residents are worried about the homeless people’s safety, and concerned by reports of anti-social behaviour near children’s play areas.
Liberal Democrat local councillors for St George’s ward are calling on Southwark Council to hold a public meeting in an effort to resolve the situation before things “escalate”. The News understands residents are concerned about drinking and drug taking.
They say despite visiting the rough sleepers – one of whom is reportedly ex-military – with charities and outreach workers, there has been limited success in placing them into safe and suitable accommodation.
Councillor Maria Linforth-Hall told the News: “Everybody is passing the buck. Local residents are extremely concerned and angry that this situation has continued for some time, apparently with no end in sight and with no plan from the council to resolve it.
“We therefore call upon Southwark Council’s cabinet to direct officers to work in partnership with us as ward councillors, local charities, the police and other relevant bodies to resolve the situation.
“There is no immediate solution but we all have to join forces and come up with an answer that satisfies the residents and helps the homeless people.”
Rough sleeping in the park has been a recurring issue over several years, but there are now around half a dozen tents in the makeshift encampment.
Police told the News they were first made aware of the situation in February this year.
Cllr Graham Neale said Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park was neither safe nor suitable for the people forced to live in tents, and that the situation was “unacceptable, for both those people currently sleeping rough there and for local residents”.
A spokesperson for the Imperial War Museum said it had been working closely with the council and charities to engage with the people camping out, and to minimise disruption for visitors.
Southwark Council’s Kieron Williams, the cabinet member for housing, said: “It is simply not right that in a country as wealthy as Britain anyone should have to sleep on the streets.”
He said outreach teams were visiting nightly but their work was “hamstrung by Government cuts that have left a growing number of rough sleepers without the benefits, heath care and housing options that they need.”
He said a plan of support for the group in the park had been agreed with the Imperial War Museum and police.
“The group have all been offered places in the borough where they can get safe shelter and food and we are also continuing to take action to address antisocial behaviour by some,” he told the News.
“While some initially left, some have returned. We will continue to offer them support to get off the street and into a decent home.”
Southwark has seen a dramatic rise in rough sleeping, mirrored by rising rates of homelessness across the country.
While sofa surfing, overcrowded housing, and temporary accommodation are all growing problems, rough sleeping is the sharpest and most visible type of homelessness and, often due to the combination of mental and physical health problems suffered, one of the most difficult to resolve.
Southwark has a ‘no second night out’ policy and has won plaudits for its work in homelessness prevention, but the News understands there are just five outreach workers with a team of volunteers covering the entire borough; looking for people sleeping in doorways, makeshift encampments, and passageways.
In 2017/18, 309 people were believed to be sleeping rough in Southwark, rising to 435 for 2018/19. A third of them were returning to Southwark having been street homeless before.