Homeless people live in a mall yards from the £700m Olympic Stadium

Yards from the £700m Olympic Stadium, a tribe of homeless people live in a mall, fenced off from shoppers: Could there be a starker insight into the divide between Britain’s haves and have-nots? 

  • One hundred people sleep rough in the Stratford Centre in east London at night 
  • At the shopping centre the men and women can eat and rest away from the cold
  • They can only be removed if they are causing a disturbance at the mall  

From the entrance of the Stratford Centre shopping mall, you can almost hear the roar of the crowds inside the London Stadium.

The venue is home to West Ham Football Club today, but in the balmy summer of 2012, when the eyes of the world were on this corner of East London, it was the glistening centrepiece of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

In the stadium, when Usain Bolt won gold, was a chauffeur called Michael who was given a complimentary ticket for the 100m final from a friend of his then girlfriend.

Michael, who is in his 50s, has now fallen on hard times and is sleeping rough on a piece of cardboard, a short stroll away from those stands where he cheered Bolt to victory.

‘I can’t believe where I have ended up,’ he says, his eyes welling up.

Nowhere could the dividing line between rich and poor, between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, be more obvious or brutally drawn than here, in the heart of the supposedly new, regenerated post-Olympic East End, where Michael is bedding down for the night.

Outside, beyond the front doors of the shopping mall, which was built in 1974 and got a refit in 1998, is the revitalised Stratford that sprang up from the industrial wasteland which existed before the Games: gleaming office blocks, penthouse suites, stores selling Armani, and fancy bars and restaurants serving champagne and caviar.

Just over the railway line, on the route to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, is the glitzy Westfield shopping mall with its flagship John Lewis store. Inside the Stratford Centre, however, as darkness descends and shops shut, is a very different world.

This is perhaps the only shopping mall in Britain where there are regular soup kitchens. On Wednesday evening, charity volunteers put up trestle tables and began serving food (sandwiches, pasta, salad, bottled water) to the arriving diaspora. How many did they cater for? The same number as always: 100. After their meal, many of the pitiful individuals in the queue ended up sleeping in the Stratford Centre itself. By 9pm, the precinct resembled an airport lounge after all the flights had been cancelled. Some of the homeless were propped up against shop fronts. Others were spreadeagled on the floor. Some had sleeping bags. Others didn’t. Some were in groups. Others were alone.

Michael, a divorced father-of-four, could be found in his regular spot, outside a branch of Foot Locker, with a suitcase and rucksack containing a few changes of clothes and a small supply of toiletries, which are all of the possessions he has.

The Stratford Centre contains 56 retail outlets, so, on most nights, there are more homeless people here than shops and, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more homeless people are concentrated in the Stratford Centre than the entire rough sleeping populations of places such as Nottingham (43) Portsmouth (42), Hastings (40), Derby (37), even Liverpool (33).

Many, like Michael, are native Londoners. Among the dispossessed and desperate, too, are Romanians and Albanians, as well as those from India, Pakistan and Africa.

Newham Council, the local authority which covers Stratford, insists that none of these poor souls is in the country illegally. But why are they drawn to this shopping centre, of all places?

The answer lies in the law of the land. Normally, rough sleepers can be moved on from private property. But the Stratford Centre is a public right of way, which means that rough sleepers cannot be moved on unless they are causing a disturbance. Word has spread among their number. Here, they are at least guaranteed some warmth and shelter of an evening.

The same tragic themes — drug addiction, alcoholism, mental health problems — run through the back stories of the inhabitants of this often violent dystopia.

The mortality rate within the Stratford Centre homeless community is frighteningly high. In the past month alone, four regulars have died from a variety of mostly chronic health conditions. The youngest was in her 20s, the oldest in his 50s.

A fifth person, a diabetic in his 40s, suffered a heart attack in his wheelchair outside the entrance to the centre and died in hospital.

Michael told us there were sinister circumstances surrounding what happened. The man, he says, had been given what he thought were two cigarettes, but which turned out to be ‘joints of pure Spice’, a synthetic alternative to cannabis, now a Class B drug, moments before he collapsed.

Spice, the so-called ‘zombie’ drug, is endemic in the centre. A number of young men, with characteristic glazed, catatonic stares, were sitting on the floor near where food was being distributed when the Mail visited this week.

Shocking scenes as the Stratford Centre in East London turns into a shelter overnight for a meal and a place to sleep. Around 100 people turned up to eat and many stayed overnight

An atmosphere of bristling violence is ever present. ‘I’ll cut you up, I’ll cut you up, do you hear?’ one man is warned by another for apparently trying to steal cigarettes.

In another incident, police and an ambulance were called to the centre after, it is believed, an Albanian was hit over the head with a vodka bottle.

During our first visit to the Stratford Centre, on Tuesday, a middle-aged woman was shoved to the ground as a crowd converged on charity food trolleys even before they were unloaded.

The scene was reminiscent of the Third World, not a family shopping precinct in an area of the capital that has undergone redevelopment on a scale not seen since the days of Empire.

  • ‘The streets are filthy, there’s trash everywhere – It’s…

    ‘Please help me, please’: Desperate homeless man begs thugs…

Share this article

Let’s not forget that this is where plans were only recently unveiled for a £1.3 billion cultural hub, featuring an outpost of the V&A museum and a home for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, together with residential towers, in the Olympic Park itself.

The lofty ambitions of this latest project could not provide a more sobering contrast with the reality of life for people like Michael.

One in 25 people in the borough of Newham are homeless — the figure includes rough sleepers and those in temporary accommodation — in spite of Olympics ambassador Lord Coe’s ambitious prediction that the ‘most enduring legacy of the Games will be the regeneration of an entire community for the direct benefit of everyone who lives there’.

The average income in Newham is £24,000 a year, but the average house price, following the Olympics boost, is now more than £400,000.

Demand for affordable homes vastly outstrips supply. The waiting list for social housing stands at 25,729, with 44 applications for every property that becomes available. This is forcing many families into homelessness, housing campaigners argue, or to be relocated hundreds of miles from London.

Michael himself was earning a decent living as a chauffeur. Much of his work used to be for West Ham Football Club. Many past and present West Ham stars were passengers in the back seat of his Mercedes, along with celebrity fans who enjoyed VIP seats at games, including the actor Ray Winstone.

Two years ago, however, his car broke down. It was the start of a catastrophic chain of events.

Michael couldn’t afford to have the vehicle repaired, so he was forced to give up driving and became unemployed. Michael then struggled to pay the rent on his council flat.

Six weeks ago, he was evicted. For the past fortnight, his ‘home’ has been the Stratford Centre.

Michael has four grown-up children from his marriage which ended a decade ago. Only his eldest daughter knows about his present predicament.

‘She was waking through the mall and saw me laying over there,’ he explained. ‘She sent me a text message, asking: ‘Dad, were you sleeping in the Stratford Centre?’

‘I replied, saying: ‘Don’t be daft.’ I’m a proud man. But I called her back later and admitted it.’ Michael became visibly upset when speaking about his daughter. ‘I never thought it would come to this,’ he added.

One can only hope that one of his family will come to his rescue when they read this article.

A number of the night-time population of the Stratford Centre are ex-Army personnel as well as women who have been the victims of domestic violence.

The Olympics was supposed to bring wealth and happiness to Stratford – but it seems not everyone is seeing the benefits. Pictured: Aerial view of East London, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

A few even have jobs. One man works full-time at a car wash, but is paid only £80 a week so can’t afford rent. Various groups have staked their territory in the mall.

‘That’s where the drug addicts sleep,’ said another resident of the Stratford Centre. ‘They’ll come back later from robbing people. And over there is where the Romanians are. They’ll soon start smashing bottles and fighting.’

In December, it emerged that police were investigating a grooming gang at the Stratford Centre after young girls were seen congregating with older men at McDonalds.

‘One night last week, a young girl from Basildon, Essex, offered to give me £60 if she could sleep next to me,’ Michael reveals.

‘She was 17 and had run away from home. She was scared and wanted protection. I told her to ‘get out of here now’, that it was no place for her. It wasn’t safe.’ Literature warning youngsters of the dangers of sexual exploitation were distributed. Some children spoken to by officers were referred to social services and given educational support.

Meanwhile, anyone who looks up from the pavement outside the Stratford Centre will see the top of the ArcelorMittal Orbit.

This 376ft-high sculpture, designed by Turner Prize-winning artist Sir Anish Kapoor, is one of the most recognisable and controversial symbols of the Olympic Park. Visitors can pay to go up it, but it lost £520,000 in its first year alone.

Viewed from ‘skid row’ down at the Stratford Centre, the expense is hard to justify. One of Michael’s new friends is Ryan. He was an electrician who ran his own business, until he gambled it all away.

‘I started losing my business at the end of last year,’ said Ryan. ‘I tried to gamble myself out of it. I must have been to every betting shop in the country.’

Ryan, in his 40s, has been ‘living’ at the Stratford Centre for the past month.

Among the other inhabitants of this twilight world are Tomasz, 37, from Poland, who has been homeless since losing his building job last year; Mohammed, 47, from India, until recently a cleaner at Heathrow, and veteran rough sleepers Barry and Jason, in their 40s, who have been on the streets for most of the past decade.

Perhaps the saddest case was that of a woman pacing up and down in a clearly agitated state near the food tables.

Her name, we discovered, was Melissa Charles, whose son Rashan died last summer, aged 20, after being chased by police into a shop near his home in Dalston, East London.

Rashan was handcuffed and held down as officers tried to retrieve a suspected drug package from his mouth which subsequently turned out to be a mixture of caffeine and paracetamol.

Barely able to speak because of the medication she is on, Melissa wrote out, in beautiful handwriting, her name and the details of her tragic story on a piece of paper. ‘My name is Melissa Charles,’ it said, ‘mother of Rashan Charles . . .’

An inquest into Rashan’s death is due to end next week.

A family member who was with Melissa said she was struggling to come to terms with the loss of her son. ‘She’s given up,’ he said. ‘I cannot force her off the street. All I can do is keep an eye on her and make sure no one takes advantage of her.’

Last week, up to ten different charities were handing out food, which gives an indication of the scale of the problem.

Newham Council has announced it has just been given £500,000 to help tackle the homelessness crisis around the centre. The money will be spent on a 20-bed refuge for rough sleepers, which should be ‘up and running’ in the next few months.

For the moment, though, two very different worlds exist in this corner of the ‘Olympic borough’ — separated only by the glass doors of the Stratford Centre. 

Additional reporting by Mark Branagan.

Source: Read Full Article