Barking’s homeless ‘Santa Claus’ celebrates a year off the streets

Ray Bryant spent years on the streets but is now enjoying life under one roof. Picture: Jon King

Ray Bryant spent years on the streets but is now enjoying life under one roof. Picture: Jon King - Credit: Archant

A former rough sleeper known affectionately as Santa Claus has thanked supporters after getting off the streets.

Ray during a night at the homeless night shelter at the Barking Baptist Tabernacle in Linton Road. P

Ray during a night at the homeless night shelter at the Barking Baptist Tabernacle in Linton Road. Picture: Paul Bennett - Credit: Archant

Ray Bryant used to bed down in a tent in Short Blue Place, Barking, night after night, but on November 19 will mark one year with a roof over his head.

He said: “I want to thank everybody that supported me through the years and let them know that I’m still around – a lot of people think I’m dead!

“I want to let them all know I’m very happy to be in my new home.”

The 63-year-old was a familiar face for years, receiving support from well-wishers who called him Santa Claus because of his big, bushy white beard.

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“People have got big hearts. They would brighten up my day. Children would not leave Barking until they’d come to see Santa Claus,” Ray joked.

The former steel industry worker ended up homeless after a break up and the deaths of his mother, Annie, and father, John, whom Ray buried on a birthday.

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“Everything just spiralled and I couldn’t dig my way out of the hole,” Ray said.

There were times when Ray wouldn’t accept charity, ended up in jail only to come out again and go back on the streets. He spent more than 20 years sleeping rough.

He said there were times people tried to set his tent on fire.

On what finally got him off the streets, Ray explained: “I missed my creature comforts.”

Brenda Otto and Alexis Levene from support group Nightingale Angels UK, the local authority and homelessness charity Thames Reach helped Ray on his journey.

Bill Tidnam, Thames Reach chief executive, said: “We are really pleased to hear Ray has successfully moved away from the street.

“Ray was a larger than life character, who worked really hard to address his problems and we wish him all the best.

“Rough sleeping is hugely damaging to people’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and the sooner a person can leave the street the better it is.

“These are difficult times, but we never give up on anyone and, just like Ray, we passionately believe that people can make real and lasting changes in their lives.”

Ray is fairly sure he would not be alive today if he was still on the streets, but is determined he won’t return.

“We are going to stick with Ray all the way through,” Brenda said.

It’s that kind of longer term support which other rough sleepers may well benefit from as temperatures drop.

The Everybody In scheme during the first lockdown saw many homeless people provided with somewhere to stay.

As Covid-19 cases surge, Barking and Dagenham was recently granted £442,000 in short-term funding to help the borough’s homeless into private accommodation, hostels or student digs.

Figures from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network reveal that 3,444 people slept rough across London from July 2020 to September 2020.

This includes 1,901 who were rough sleeping for the first time.

This represents a 14 per cent decrease on the same period last year.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “It’s welcome to see rough sleeping numbers in London finally going in the right direction.

“These figures show the initial influx of people forced onto the streets at the start of the pandemic has not escalated at the pace we feared.

“However, the fact remains that 3,444 is a huge number of people to be sleeping on the streets of our capital at any time, let alone during a pandemic.”

But the challenge of helping rough sleepers remains, according to Ray.

“There are people who have been homeless a long time who don’t want to come off the street because they find it easy to live,” he said.

He hoped something could be put in place to equip people with the skills they need to move on and stay off the streets as he clearly has.

On stepping over the threshold of his home for the first time, Ray recalled: “It was something I haven’t felt for many years. I couldn’t believe it.”

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