Saturday, November 19, 2011

'Occupy London' Homeless get tent of their own

The Independent
Homeless get tent of their own at St Paul's
Saturday 05 November 2011

Charlie Cooper

Protest leaders set up welfare centre to provide influx of rough sleepers with food and shelter

Under the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral, the Occupy London protest camp has become a beacon for all manner of people. There are the protesters and campaigners who come to offer support and hear the speeches.

There are the bemused tourists. And then there are the people who feel as if they have nowhere else to go.

Protesters yesterday said they will set up a "welfare centre" within the camp to offer help and support to those of London's homeless who are increasingly coming to the site seeking food, warmth and sometimes just distraction. Organisers are appealing to charities and individuals with expertise in social work, counselling, drug and alcohol services, welfare housing and mental health issues to work voluntarily at the proposed centre.

The welfare centre will occupy a tent within yards of the cathedral's front door and organisers hope to have it up and running within days. There is an increasingly established network of start-ups insitutions in the camp. There is already, a "university" in a white marquee, a bookshop, a kitchen and even a visitor information centre.

Malcom Blackman, who has been living at the camp since it began, said "more and more" homeless people had been coming. "We have lot of people coming by, stumbling round the tents at night," he said. "There's a lot of friendly people here and food. There was a concern that it would undermine the image of the camp. But so far we've met every obstacle we've come up against, and the welfare centre will be a good way to address this one."

James McMahon, a 48-year-old homeless man has lived in the area around St Paul's for more than 10 years. He is given free food from the kitchen tent, donated by well-wishers, cooked by the resident chefs, and served free to all comers. Now he has a roof over his head, albeit a canvas one. "I asked for a tent and was given one," he said.

"There's a community here. I have welcomed these people to my home and they have welcomed me. There's people I can sit with, eat with and have a conversation with. It's the most human contact I've had in 10 years." Mr McMahon said that the only aggression he had encountered in the camp had come from "drunken people in suits" who pass the camp at night, shouting abuse and one time kicking tents.

St Paul's have not commented on the protesters' plan, but Anglican think-tank Ekklesia said that the idea represented the best of Christian values.

Yesterday the camp set up an internet link with activists in Syria, and listened to an address from former Labour Cabinet minister Tony Benn, who urged them to "keep hope and carry on".

City of London authorities are understood to be seeking a High Court injunction if the protest camp is not cleared soon. But, Mr Blackman said: "Now's the time to dig in. We've had some difficulties but now is the time to show the world that peaceful protest can still work."

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