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Ex-homeless Irish people highlight plight of those sleeping rough at Christmas

Ken Gannon, trustee of Hope 4 Havering, centre, with Damien McBride, third from right, and fellow protesters

FIFTEEN protestors ‘slept rough’ in Westminster over the weekend to highlight the plight of many homeless people who could freeze to death across Britain this winter.

Led by Irishman Ken Gannon, a trustee of the Hope 4 Havering charity, which organised the sleep out, the peaceful protest took place on Friday.

Of the men and women who took to the pavement for the night, four were ex-homeless Irish people from across the borough of Havering, where the community features heavily among the homeless population.

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They were joined by a number of professionals who support the charity, including Mr Gannon, who is also a street pastor on the borough’s streets and has regular contact with Irish people who have fallen on hard times and ended up without a roof over their head.

Damien McBride, far right, with protesters

The charity supporter, who hails from Dublin and is on the committee of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Ireland London Society, claims it was the death of a local man in his hometown in Leytonstone which compelled him to organise the protest.

“I did the life celebration for a gentleman who died homeless in Leytonstone in September,” he explained. “Eddie Kuwateedza was outside the system for 15 years, sleeping behind a pub for a while, and was dead for a period of time before he was found in September.

“His body had started to be eaten by wildlife, it was very traumatic and hundreds of people from Leytonstone came out for the day of his funeral.”

He added: “I am a Christian man and I just thought this is on my patch; this is what’s happened I am not going to let it lie.

“That drove me to the idea for this protest in Westminster.”

Ken Gannon, right, slept rough on the streets of Westminster

During the protest the lives of three men, including Eddie,who died homeless in the past year were remembered in an art installation in Old Parliament Yard.

Michael Gething, 42, who froze to death in the doorway of a Methodist church in Totnes in December 2012, was remembered during the evening, along with 35-year-old Daniel Gauntlett, who suffered a similar fate on a freezing night in April this year, where he died while attempting to seek shelter in the porch of a derelict house.

For Mr Gannon, as the winter temperatures begin to dip local councils across the country should prepare to address the risk to rough sleepers by opening up temporary shelters to see them through the freeze.

“I think there is an emergency issue here,” he explained. “I know there are initiatives in place across Britain and that structurally there are things they are trying to get in place, but while initiatives are interesting people die from the cold, so there is an urgency here and there are temporary needs as the temperature between now and March will be way down and people are not being cared for.”

Ken spoke to the Police during his overnight stay

Mr Gannon has suggested to his local MPs — and hopes others may consider — setting up temporary shelters for the homeless over the coming months.

“My call to all MPs is that anywhere there are properties available in councils locally, those places could be temporarily turned over to shelters at least to get over the urgent need during the cold spell,” he said.

“Structurally it’s a longer term discussion, but this emergency need could be addressed by just opening the doors of these places that are not being used, and getting a couple of supervisors in to man it.

“We have to take responsibility as a society for what is happening on our streets,” he added.

The Hope 4 Havering charity is a fellowship of 10 churches which provide shelter, feeding and showering to all who seek help or who are referred by local agencies. www.hope4havering. com 

Case study: A life on the streets

Damien McCabe Born in September 1991 in Drogheda, Damien McCabe is one of five children.

He has two brothers and two sisters, who all still live in Ireland and are leading sensible Irish lifestyles.

When Damien met a nice Belfast girl in Navan, the relationship quickly started to develop. However when his parents voiced their concerns about her mental state he chose to leave the house rather than leave his partner.

The pair, Damien aged just 16 and his girlfriend 19, headed for London.

But they quickly found the grass was not greener in Britain, as they came to Essex with very little money and no job prospects.

Damien’s City and Guilds in Painting and decorating did not attract much interest in the property boom and the couple struggled.

With his girlfriend’s mental health deteriorating a suicide attempt in 2009 saw the young woman diagnosed with unstable border line personality disorder and schizophrenia and hospitalised.

The following summer Damien could no longer cope with the range of pressures upon him and did the unthinkable.

With no money, no heat, no electric or food, he took a kitchen knife, went into Ilford and robbed at knifepoint woman in her 30’s, alone and in a secluded area, which the victim obviously will never recover from.

The proceeds of Damien’s crime were a phone and £6. Within four days Damien was in detention awaiting trial.

Six months later he was handed down a three and a half year sentence with a minimum tariff of 18 months in Littlehay in Cambridge.

He served 18 months and was released on licence in August 2012. Since his release he was unable to secure any work or return to living with his partner and in May 2013 found himself on the streets.

Living for six months in underpasses, in parks and under bridges the reality of his life pressed on him and he often considered suicide, as his cycle seemed unbreakable.

But one day that breakthrough came. Last month on a scheduled meeting with the probation service, Damien was linked with the Hope 4 Havering charity and made it into a shelter.

The group then set about helping him rebuild his life through training courses which could get him working again.

Extra help from another agency contributed to a rent deposit and last week Damien finally got a bedsit in Forrest Gate.

For the first time since moving to London he has a key for his own door and a bed that he can truly call his own.

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Fiona Audley
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Fiona Audley is Managing Editor with The Irish Post. You can follow her on Twitter @fifiaudley

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