Victoria Coren Mitchell

Introducing our Patron – Victoria Coren Mitchell

Victoria Coren Mitchell is a nationally recognised writer, television presenter and poker player.  She is a parent, Camden resident and long standing supporter of Doorstep.

Victoria Coren Mitchell



I was bowled over by Doorstep when I first walked in. It’s an organisation that obviously has a huge and transformative effect on the lives of the people it serves – there is a community of lonely mothers, unlucky children and stigmatised families who might otherwise be sitting in tiny rooms feeling hopeless, but instead can find light and space and colour and laughter and play – and help, and kindness and company – and this is surely the road back to pride and confidence, getting back into the workplace and the regular world. I think it’s really wonderful.”

London Community Foundation features Doorstep’s work

We are grateful for London Community Foundation‘s recent feature on Doorstep, helping to draw attention to our cause and work.

There are thousands of homeless families across London stuck in unsuitable hostel accommodation. Neil Baker visits a charity that supports them, and hears how one mother is fighting for a better life – for herself and her young son

Tanya is waiting for the phone call that she hopes will change her life. A single mother with a two-year-old son, she’s spent the last nine months living in a hostel for homeless families. There’s no space for her boy, Omran, to play and barely any privacy.

“We sit, eat and sleep in our bed,” she says. “In the summer there are places to go, but if you go to the park for three hours, what do you do for the rest of the day? When we get back to the hostel, Omran shrinks into the buggy and cries.”

The strain of living in such cramped accommodation is taking its toll. Tanya looks smart in her dark trousers, green and cream sweater, black hair tied back. But she speaks in a whisper and spends much of our time together with her head in her hands.

She’s desperate to find a safe, permanent home for Omran. Last month her dream came true. Camden Council found a private landlord willing to rent a flat to a tenant on housing benefit. Moving day is next week.

But two days ago the dream turned sour. Tanya heard that the landlord still hadn’t signed the contract. Now he isn’t answering his phone. And her housing officer is off sick.

The council says it should all be fine, but they’ve told Tanya to have a plan B, just in case. “I don’t have a plan B,” she cries. “If this falls through, I don’t know where we will stand.”

Lifeline on the doorstep

Tanya is telling her story in the crèche at Doorstep Homeless Families, a shoestring charity that’s a lifeline for people like Omran and herself.

It offers after-school clubs, back-to-work training, free toys and healthy meals from the basement of the Abbots and Levine Hostel, one of the biggest in Camden. (Hence the name; it’s literally on the doorstep of the homeless families it serves.)

Many of the 45 families living on the four floors above have just one room. Others get two, but with a communal corridor running between them. People often feel isolated, cut off from family and support networks. They may have fled violence and experienced trauma.

Vicky Fox runs Doorstep, and has worked here for 25 years. She’s the only full-time staffer. Christmas is two weeks away. Today there are two parties for children and their families; sacks of presents to wrap; food hampers to distribute. Her cramped office has a desk, a sink, mountains of paperwork and Post-it notes everywhere. “It’s a huge workload,” she says.

Fundraising is a growing part of the job. Camden provided the core funding for 20 years. But in 2014 they cut 100% of their grant. “It was a blow,” says Vicky.

Building from nothing

“Doorstep has been a rock for me these last nine months,” says Tanya. Here Omran can be a normal, smiley kid. With his black hair cut short, in a dinosaur t-shirt, he’s happy playing trains and cars on the floor with another boy his age. He’s oblivious to his mum’s tears, as she explains how they became homeless.

Born in northern Iraq, Tanya grew up in Baghdad. Her father was a doctor. They fled the country when he was detained and tortured by the regime. With the help of the United Nations, they made it to London in 2001, as refugees with indefinite leave to remain.

From very little, Tanya built a good enough life for herself: a rented three-bedroom flat, a car, some savings in the bank. She’s an educated woman with two university degrees. When her father had a stroke, Tanya was his sole carer until he died. She then met a man, married him within a year, and had a baby.

Her husband decided they would live in Germany, where he had family and work would be easier to find. But when they arrived he just sat on the sofa all day playing computer games, says Tanya. Once her savings were all gone, he abandoned her.

Making a new start

Eventually, she made it back to London, arriving at St Pancras train station with one suitcase, Omran in his buggy and nowhere to sleep that night. Tanya went to Camden town hall and declared herself homeless.

“I know there’s no shame in living on benefits, but it’s not me,” she says, when she’s finished sharing her story. “It’s not what I want. I’m used to being busy, to working. I just want to be independent again.”

The phone call she’s desperately waiting for isn’t just about getting a proper home; it’s the first step away from this life and back towards normality. The thought that it might fall through is almost too much to bear. She’s taking medication for depression, and was considered a suicide risk. Vicky has been watching her closely.

“I want to know what is happening, but I can’t keep calling the council. It’s embarrassing,” Tanya says. “I can’t go back to square one again.”

No more news

Omran’s crying interrupts us. Another child has banged him on the head with a toy. He comes to Tanya for a cuddle. “Ah, mummy, mummy, mummy,” she says, embracing him in a long hug, kissing the top of his head, again and again.

Now the morning play session has finished. Tanya’s phone hasn’t rung. We wish her good luck as she climbs the stairs to street level. She’s off to find another way to pass the time, before it gets too dark or too cold and they have to return to the hostel.

Christmas comes and goes. Did the landlord sign the contract? Are they still stuck in that single hostel room? There’s no news about Tanya.

And then on January 11 an email arrives. “I just saw Tanya,” writes Vicky. “She is positively radiant with happiness! I’ve seen pictures of her flat and it really is lovely!”

Doorstep Homeless Families Project is funded by the London Community Foundation. There’s more information about the project here: Some of the names in this story have been changed to respect privacy.

Opinion: Improving the way we provide council housing

The New Year is now well underway and in Camden our new housing allocations policy has gone live.

Ham&High investigation reveals 17 per cent hike in rough sleeping in Borough of Camden

Camden has seen a huge rise in rough sleeping in the borough as the number on the streets tops 600 for the first time in five years.

The high cost of housing and cuts to services have been blamed for a 17 per cent hike in rough sleeping in Camden last year, echoing something from a Dickens’ novel according to one expert.

Ian Bangay, of Camden Council’s Safer Streets team, said: “The word Dickensian is very apt. It’s a huge rise and I do find it shocking.

“People spoke some years ago about reducing rough sleeping in London to zero and yet look at it.

Ian Bangay, project manager of the Camden Safer Streets Team, described the rise in rough sleeping as ‘Dickensian’.

“There are far too many rough sleepers and government policy is assisting the increase in the numbers.”

Our investigation has revealed that almost three quarters of those living on Camden’s streets have mental health problems or are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Just before Christmas the Ham&High went on patrol in Hampstead with those tasked with tackling rough sleeping.

Among those we found was one homeless man hidden inside a dirty duvet, just metres from the multi-million pound mansions around Whitestone Pond.

Those working to reduce homelessness say there has been no increase in London-wide resources yet the number of rough sleepers in Camden has jumped from 361 in 2011 to 601 last year.

This is placing a huge strain on services.

The number of rough sleepers is being fuelled by hundreds who are new to the streets, we can reveal.

Just over half of the 601 people sleeping rough in the borough last year were UK nationals and many are not previously known to agencies tasked with tackling homelessness.

“The majority of the people that we’re seeing are new to the streets and will never have been seen before and that’s shocking,” said Mr Ian Bangay, project manager of the Safer Streets team, which provides outreach services to street sleepers.

“We’re waking up a lot of people who are saying ‘I’m not a rough sleeper, I’ve just lost my job and I couldn’t find work, so I’ve been thrown out of my accommodation’, but they’re sleeping in a bag in a shop doorway.”

The number of rough sleepers in Camden has leapt by 66 per cent since 2011, from 361 people that year to 601 in 2015.

Among the factors influencing the rise are high house prices, cuts to services such as day centres and homeless people arriving at St Pancras, King’s Cross and Euston stations and staying in Camden.

“Things get closed down and you don’t think it will have an impact, like day centres for autistic people for instance,” said Mr Bangay.

“When the government take populist measures such as cuts to benefits, people think they’re saving UK money but they don’t think about the consequences to the homeless population.

“If they cut housing benefits there’s the cost of having 600 people on the streets – not just to police, the health service, the council, but the cost to human misery as well.

“We’re seeing more and more people who have lost jobs and can’t pay rent as austerity bites.”

The availability of highly addictive legal highs in Camden Town has also contributed to the rise, he said.

Three quarters of those on the borough’s streets last year had identified mental health, drugs or alcohol issues and far more men than women slept rough, 525 males compared to 76 females.

The Safer Streets team sends outreach workers to try and help rough sleepers into shelters and to access support.

But the number of places in shelters has remained static while the number of rough sleepers has increased sharply.

Camden Council said it is doing all it can to tackle the issues.

Cllr Jonathan Simpson, cabinet member for community safety, said: “Like many local authorities we are concerned that a shortage of affordable accommodation, government benefit cuts and changes to the way charities are funded are causing a sharp increase in homelessness across the capital, with increasingly limited resources to help those who are homeless.”