First-of-its-kind storage unit offers peace of mind to rough sleepers
- Credit: Archant
From a tiny industrial unit just behind one of Islington’s busiest commercial arteries, a lifeline is quietly being extended to the homeless in London.
On March 29, the very first items were dropped off at Street Storage, a grassroots initiative offering a place for people to securely stow their documents and belongings.
So far, so unremarkable. But when all the clients are rough sleepers, and the service – astoundingly, the first of its kind – is being offered free of charge, it has the potential to be life-changing.
"The only way you can really tell if someone is homeless," says director Rachel Woolf, "is by all their stuff.
"This takes away one of the four primary problems for a homeless person: food, storage, safety and hygiene.
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"But less obviously, it also takes away the stigma. It means you're no longer identifiable as a rough sleeper."
Street Storage opened its doors after five months of planning and groundwork, with £7,000 raised from the public and more promised from Islington Council's Local Initiatives Fund.
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The premises, the address of which is given to clients on a need-to-know basis, was eventually secured rent-free – although it took four attempts to get an insurer on board.
Rachel, 27, who formerly worked at The Manna project and the CARIS Islington Night Shelter, recognised the need for a permanent facility after speaking to people experiencing homelessness on the street and in winter shelters around the borough. An official count last November found 43 people sleeping rough in Islington in one night.
Rachel told the Gazette: "The more I talked to people about storage, the more obvious it became that it didn't really exist.
"A lot of things can befall you as a rough sleeper. People replace their clothes a lot because they get lost or damaged or wet. I've heard awful stories of homeless-on-homeless crime: people burning each other's stuff or stealing it.
"Not only do you need to keep your stuff safe from the elements, from the rain and snow and puddles, but you may also need to keep it safe from yourself. If you've got an addiction, memory loss or a brain injury, you need it somewhere you're not going to leave it or forget it.
"We've met hundreds of people who've got stuff in a friend of a friend's apartment, or at the back of a church, or in a bush. All their stuff might be strewn across London in different places.
"The idea of Street Storage is to enable people not to worry all the time about the security of their belongings."
Street Storage offers long-term storage for up to three years, as well as a flexible short-term facility for those who only need to drop off their bags for a few hours.
All in, there's enough space for 18 to 20 people to store belongings, each with their own storage box.
There is also room on loose shelves and in a locked cabinet for up to 100 to leave important documents, such as passports, housing records and right-to-work papers. Each client has to sign a string of undertakings including a behavioural policy, a data protection policy, and an itemised list of everything they wish to hand over.
Only a few items will not be taken by Street Storage, and are fairly self-explanatory.
"I tend to compare it to what you can't bring on a plane," said Rachel. "No weapons, no perishables, nothing illegal or stolen. Most of the things we wouldn't accept, people tend to want to keep with them anyway."
The first six people to be referred to Street Storage came from Islington, Hackney, Camden, Tower Hamlets and Westminster.
Some, Rachel said, were hesitant about letting go of their belongings, having carried them for years on end.
She said: "One guy came in three times and left his stuff the third time. If you've slept with your stuff for five to 10 years, to leave it is quite a hard concept for some people."
Street Storage has negotiated a second lease due to start in two months' time, but the hope is to find a bigger premises before then, ideally in central London.
The benefits of a permanent warehouse, Rachel said, would go far beyond offering rough sleepers across London some basic peace of mind.
She said: "It gives people their humanity back. It gives them the opportunity to lead a normal life for a few hours.
"You can go to a library or a café, or see family who may not know you're homeless. You're a person again."
Visit streetstorage.co.uk for more