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Monday, November 15, 1999 Published at 17:34 GMT


Kenny's day on the mean streets

Bin there: Around 2,000 sleep rough in Britain every night

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Morris

It's 5am on a freezing November morning and Kenny Douglas's day is starting without the comforts of modern living.

The only central heating Kenny will get this morning is from a cup of tea.

There's no duvet for Kenny - just a few blankets and an overcoat scrounged from a drop-in centre for the homeless.

And the next hot meal is five hours away.

[ image: Bag man: Kenny keeps his possessions in a bin liner]
Bag man: Kenny keeps his possessions in a bin liner
The comments of the government's homelessness "czar" Louise Casey that handouts of food and luxury sleeping bags is perpetuating the problem is a sick joke to Kenny.

And the idea of finding a hostel to live in - as Ms Casey would like - is just a dream for the man who has been sleeping rough around the South Bank for four months.

Most hostels have now closed their doors to all but those picked up by their own outreach workers because the demand for places is so high.

After a quick wash in the Embankment toilets, Kenny finds a cafe in Charing Cross and warms his hands by it before letting the liquid warm his insides.

The last hot food he had was the night before - from a soup kitchen in The Strand.

He also saved a sandwich, an apple and a plastic container of coleslaw - which are doled out to the hungry every night - to augment his liquid breakfast.

Kenny collects £85 a fortnight in social security, which, with the handouts, is just enough to survive on.

[ image: Breakfast: Kenny saves handouts from the night before]
Breakfast: Kenny saves handouts from the night before
He used to work as a security officer, but a marriage split left him without a home and a job.

With no hope of finding work without a permanent address, he is caught in a Catch-22 situation of living from one moment to the next.

"No one could like this life, unless they were mad, but charities make it possible to survive, to get meals and to stop freezing to death," said Kenny.

For some people, it's clearly too late even to hope of getting out of the rut.

Their madness is in their eyes as you walk by them, or they accost you.

Just off Charing Cross Road, a bearded man in a sleeping bag screams at us with such intensity you know he has come to the end of his tether.

In winter the drop-in centres around London - offering warmth, cheap food and company - are a magnet for the homeless.

Kenny's first port of call - at 10am - is a centre on the South Bank where he rubs shoulders with junkies and alcoholics.

[ image:  ]
"Some would cut your throat for a beer," says Kenny as he wolfs down meat pie, potatoes and veg for 80p, plus a pudding for 20p.

Inside, the atmosphere is thick with despair as the homeless - the great majority of which are men - sleep or sit around listlessly.

The shelter offers showers and change of clothes - all donated from charities such as Oxfam.

At midday the centre closes and Kenny is back on the street - shuffling to the park where he will catch up on the haphazard sleep from the night before.

On the way he meets his friend Barry, selling the Big Issue on Waterloo Bridge.

Barry was homeless for nine months, but with the help of the Big Issue's housing advisors, has now found himself a housing association flat.

He has only contempt for Ms Casey's comments that the Big Issue is also perpetuating the homeless problem.

He said: "They offered me a way out of homelessness. If you really want to get off the streets, that's the way out.

"I think Ms Casey is in the wrong job to tell you the truth."

[ image: Barry:
Barry: "Big Issue got me off the streets"
At 4pm another drop-in centre near Trafalgar Square opens and Kenny takes advantage of the warmth to read the papers and a book until 8pm when it closes.

The Strand from 9pm to midnight is where West End revellers catching a bus home, and the homeless, form an uneasy mix.

Four vans pull up from 9pm to midnight - offering food deemed unfit by shops and supermarkets for those who have their own homes.

"Get a f***ing job, you layabout bastard," shouts a drunken passer-by, ejected from a nearby pub, before throwing up in the gutter

Kenny, accustomed to such outbursts, ignores it and, fortified by his soup, lifts his belongings onto his back and heads into dark corner of London's streets.

The rear of The Savoy is a popular spot. "They don't try and move you on there," he says and disappears into the night.

According to the London Connection, a day centre for the young homeless, the average life expectancy of someone sleeping rough is 43. In London alone, 190 homeless people die every year.

Kenny, at 39, will soon be living on borrowed time.

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