“There are people here with some real stories who have gone through so many difficulties in their lives over a long period of time,” said Michael, who has been helped out of homelessness by a Camden institution.
“I can’t describe the hurdles many of these people have overcome just to have a conversation.”
Few people flocking to Camden Market would have an inkling of the story behind an impressive building that has provided a roof over the head of thousands, or the story it is carving out for the future.
Arlington House has an imposing frontage on Arlington Road and opened as a hostel for London’s homeless in 1905 as the largest of the Rowton Houses set up by phailanthropist Lord Rowton which opened across the capital.
They were revolutionary, offering individual small rooms – an arm’s width across – at a time when some hostels offered homeless people the option of the “two-penny hangover”, where they tried to sleep hanging over a rope.
Former residents include journalist and novelist George Orwell who described his experience in Down and Out in London and Paris, playwright Brendan Behan and Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.
These days it is run by One Housing and supports 95 people to help them get back on their feet after experiencing homelessness, with support from key workers, counsellors and a range of activities.
Michael was referred to Arlington by Camden Council after a short period of homelessness living in a hotel.
He said: “Some of the inspiration is some of the residents. There are lessons to be learned in every life, every story.”
Whilst at Arlington he has become a volunteer barber and said “it’s incredible. Guys come in and maybe they are a bit dishevelled and when you cut their hair it gives them confidence.”
He has contributed to the new fundraising book about Arlington and its residents “to show a sense of gratitude” for the support its given him.
He enjoys playing music with other residents which he finds an enjoyable way to bring together the community and “express feelings” through music.
Naif is a former resident who has been through some very tough times on the street and is starting to forge a career in comedy.
He said: “People can become homeless very easily. It happens very quickly and before you know it you are homeless. It just becomes normal and you get used to it.”
Life on the streets affected his mental health and he said it was caused by “things that are quite traumatic. Things that I saw whilst I was homeless were out of this world. You can’t believe what you are seeing. There are little villages of people living together,” he said of that time.
He is full of praise for the “fantastic” mental health support he has received. He was referred to Arlington and he said the team “helped build up my confidence and the staff here have been a big support.”
He stopped drinking and using drugs two years ago “which has a mountain to climb” and urged people to spend time talking to people who may be homeless to give them back their humanity.
Naif did a comedy-writing course during lockdown and has started doing gigs at venues including the Camden Eye.
He said: “I use situational humour and my experiences I’ve had over the years.
“The feeling you get on stage is worlds better than drugs and alcohol,” he said with a smile.
Residents, or customers, as they are known, help write and illustrate Arlington’s in-house magazine, Emma – named after one of the residents.
There’s an art studio, open to other homeless services in Camden, where they can create and express themselves.
Art will be on display at an exhibition on 17 November.
Raha Fara is one of the artists who hopes to showcase her art at the exhibition.
She worked in the NHS after arriving in the UK and later experienced homelessness before being referred to Arlington and said: “I could not believe this was a hostel.”
She had been suffering from depression and was encouraged to have a go at art.
“They gave me colour and paint. I had never done painting. I started to play with colour, like red for happiness and joy. I was showing my emotion with the colours.”
She said the art studio gave her the freedom to experiment with art.
“I came here and it’s my family.”
She has since been rehoused by the council and said: “I am showing my voice more. It is wonderful. I am very alive with art.”
She added: “My whole journey makes me stronger.”
Musicians from the centre have even performed with Suggs from Madness, who is one of Arlington’s supporters.
Madness featured the hostel in their song ‘One Better Day’ and the Pogues also sang about it in ‘Men of Arlington’.
Suggs explained in the foreword to the book Arlington and Beyond, which celebrates the work of past and present residents and showcases their talent: “As a kid growing up in Camden Town, Arlington loomed large over my life.
“I had the great privilege to meet Joe McGarry who was running the place in the 80s just as it was starting to change and grow more inclusive. He showed me round the top floor which was almost a museum to its past. Just lines of ten-foot square cubicles.”
The modern day band the Arlingtones also produced a record, ‘Arlington Life’, and there are plans for a recording studio on site for use by customers and the public.
Fresh from a key role in delivering 11.5 million Covid vaccines, manager Michael Henry is running the conference centre, which can accommodate 135 people and helps support Arlington.
The British Academy of Cleaning and Service also has a training centre on site.
Linda Kelly, Arlington’s customer partnership and sponsorship manager, explained: “It is getting people on the employment ladder. People are helped into this place and come off the streets, so this is the whole package.”
There are plans to open up the kitchen as a community cafe so the public can enjoy meals and a cuppa, and customers can get training in hospitality – where staff are much in demand at the moment.
They also hope to team up with Camden Council and other organisations to open up the building to help the community weather the fuel crisis.
Arlington and Beyond costs £25 and proceeds go towards charities supporting Arlington residents and people in similar schemes: