Tag Archives: Islington Tribune

At 58, Gilbert Burke finds himself sleeping on a bench. Why?

Without an address or phone, he must stay in churchyard while charity searches for a bed

WHILE protesters have made their homes outside St Paul’s Cathedral the grounds of  St Magdalene Church in Holloway have their own night-time sleeper.

But Gilbert Burke, 58, isn’t a protester. He is an ordinary man who has fallen on hard times.

For five weeks Mr Burke has been sleeping on a bench in the grounds of the Holloway Road church, with his worldly possessions wrapped in a waterproof tarpaulin next to him.

Dog walkers in the park have befriended him and brought food and blankets, as well as trying to find him somewhere to live as the weather turns increasingly cold.

“This last week the frost has come down,” he said. “I’m well-insulated, I’ve been given gifts by the community. But I’m 58, I shouldn’t be out here doing this.”

He says that because the housing system is “blocked up” he faces a six-month wait for somewhere to live.

Mr Burke, who speaks with a soft American accent, says he is originally from New York. He moved to Islington in the early 1970s to escape being drafted to fight in the Vietnam war.

Since then, he has mostly lived in Holloway Road, working as a metal welder and bricklayer.

He found himself homeless last month when a relationship broke down. “I’ve had casual jobs and before that I was made redundant from my second trade, welding and shipbuilding,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of different jobs. But now I can’t find a job. I have no address and that’s a stigma.”

Mr Burke now spends his days reading in the Central Library in Holloway Road and waiting in the nearby offices of housing charity the Pillion Trust, which is trying to find somewhere warm for him to sleep.

“It’s very demeaning,” he said. “I thought I’d just be out here for a couple of days. After three days I was told I was going to have a roof over my head soon.”

The search for a permanent home is made more difficult as Mr Burke does not have an address or telephone number.

“They asked me to remain where I am as that’s they only way they can communicate with me as I don’t have a phone,” he explained. “So I’m in the churchyard just reading and reading. I’d like to be independent, I don’t want to take too much from anyone else, being told to do this and do that. I’m 58, I can be responsible for myself.”

The Pillion Trust said a lack of housing means Mr Burke may have to wait up to six months before he comes in from the cold.

“Every day there is a two-hour fight on the phone to get Gilbert help,” said Savvas Panas, head of Pillion Trust.

“But the whole system has become blocked up. People in projects are waiting to move on and our clients are waiting to go in.”

He added that it has become increasingly difficult to help people like Mr Burke who do not need enough support to qualify for priority housing under the “tight definitions” of different housing categories.

“It’s the classic 1980s catch-22: if you don’t have a job you can’t get housing, and if you don’t have housing you can’t find a job,” he said.

“Pillion are trying to start a shelter to help people keep their dignity while they wait. If we can raise enough money we hope to open by December 1.”