Walking the streets of central London in the late evening chill I was struck by the extraordinary changes to the profile of the rough sleeping population in the capital. This particular evening in question I spoke with dozens of people busy wrapping up tightly against the cold. Individual human beings showing different emotions: the anxious, the paranoid, the sinister, the confused, the phlegmatic, the desperate, the bewildered. In some respects there has been no change to the rough sleeping profile. Most of the people I spoke to sleeping rough that night were male, white and aged from 25 to 45. This has been the profile for a number of years. Research published recently by Heriot Watt University into homelessness and social exclusion provides strong evidence that it is males in this age range who suffer from the most significant levels of social exclusion and particularly men in their 30’s, who are referred to by the researchers as ‘the forgotten middle’. The reasons why there is this apparently damaged generation of men remains unclear.
There were some women out that evening, memorable through their distinctiveness. On Regent Street we spoke with bewildered concern to an older women, thinly clothed, sitting quietly in a doorway. She declined our offer to be taken to a shelter that evening, assuring us that she already had somewhere to go and that our worries about her well-being were groundless. Unconvinced, we left a message with the outreach team which was due to be covering the area later that night asking them to look out for her. In close to freezing temperatures, there is every reason to not accept no as an answer.
As the evening drew on and the temperature plunged we came across a scene which placed us firmly in 2012, a desperate vignette that captured perfectly rough sleeping in central London in this second decade of the twenty-first century. In Victoria Street, huddled around the Nat West bank cash dispensers situated within a small covered compartment were 13 rough sleepers from central and eastern Europe. Some were wrapped together to keep warm, others lay with bodies recklessly splayed out, as is the way with the heavily inebriated. Central and eastern Europeans, notably Poles, Romanians, Lithuanians and Czechs, make up a distressingly large proportion of London’s destitute rough sleepers. Usually unable to claim benefits, they are therefore unable to book into hostels and bed and breakfast hotels that require a housing benefit claim to be made to cover the rent. Many of their compatriots have come over to the UK and ‘made it’. Those with the right skills combined with the ethic of hard work for which they are renowned have returned as heroes. But the individuals stretched out by the cash dispensers will almost certainly share characteristics that have prevented them sharing in this success and with which we are now very familiar; lack of preparation prior to leaving their country to travel to London, few existing links with the UK, poor language skills and often problems with alcohol, now exacerbated through sleeping rough.
It is not only the central and eastern European diaspora triggered by the extension of the European Union in 2004 and 2007 that has changed the profile of rough sleeping in London out of all recognition. Other changes are afoot. Perhaps the most dramatic story of the winter has been the plight of men sleeping rough under a road bridge at Heston, west London on the border of the boroughs of Hounslow and Ealing. This encampment of more than 40 men is the nearest we have in 2012 to the appalling ‘cardboard cities’ of the late 1980s and early 1990s and is remarkable as the group is comprised almost entirely of men from the Punjab. It is scene of appalling squalor of Hogarthian dimensions with men sleeping side by side in grubby bedding amidst rotting food and human waste. We cannot be certain about the journey that brought them to this hellish destination but it seems that many came over to London illegally, destroying their passports and other identification to reduce the chances of being returned to the Punjab. For a while they were able to subsist by working ‘off the cards’ in west London and living in outhouses and derelict buildings. As the recession bit and the work dried up however, they were pushed remorselessly back onto living off handouts and sleeping rough. Some have developed an addiction to heroin and there is now a concern that a few are suffering from TB. Many at the Heston bridge encampment now want to return home to the Punjab. Thames Reach’s London Street Rescue team is visiting the site every week and, at the time of writing, the encampment is in the process of being dismantled and some of the men at least will be assisted to return home with the assistance of the Indian High Commission. Tragically for this group of men the dream has well and truly died.
This is the reality of working with rough sleepers in London in 2012. Thames Reach like many other street teams employs workers who can speak a range of central and eastern European languages to response to this new population. The teams working with rough sleepers in London all contribute information to a shared database, CHAIN. Reports making use of the collected data evidence the inexorable change in the rough sleeping population. In 2011-12, for the first time over half (52%) of all people found sleeping rough in London were non-UK nationals, 28% being from central and eastern Europe. To support their work, the specialist assistance that the teams call on is increasingly from the legal profession to help unravel the many complex issues relating to immigration status.
Public awareness of this humanitarian tragedy remains dim and sketchy. Curiously, and in my view perversely, it seems that sustenance is gained by inferring that nothing has changed and media descriptions of homelessness retreat to a tired and limited lexicon of phrases where cliché is king. Cathy Come Home, cardboard city, young runaways, down and out in London, sofa surfer, hidden homeless, one pay-cheque from homelessness.
So, given the transformation in the profile of the rough sleeping population in the last decade, it was with a degree of bemusement that I settled down to watch the short film The Truth About Stanley which tells the tale of a young runaway befriending an African man of mature years on the streets of London. It is always encouraging when a film-maker seeks to raise awareness of homelessness and I watched the film in the hope that it could contribute to public understanding of rough sleeping and the work being undertaken to help men and women come in from the street. The film is a beautifully nuanced and moving portrait of a relationship between two unlikely companions. But at its end I confess to feeling a sense of frustration. It portrayed a profile of rough sleeping that bears no relation at all to London's in 2012. There are many challenges facing our children and young people, not least the obscenely high level of youth unemployment which will inevitably lead, in time, to an increase in some forms of youth homelessness if not addressed, though whether this will shape into a big increase in rough sleeping amongst the young I personally doubt. However, young runaways (that is, children aged 16 or under) living on the street for weeks or months at a time is not a phenomenon confronting the street outreach teams in London. Of course, young people still run away from home. Invariably they are spotted quickly by the street teams and connected up with statutory children’s services. This is confirmed by the CHAIN statistics which show that the number of young people aged 16 or under found sleeping rough by all the teams working across central London in the last five years to be just one. So the character of Sam the young runaway in the film would not be familiar to the outreach workers walking the street night after night seeking to help people escape street homelessness. With sadness I concluded that the overwhelming fact that I could take away from The Truth about Stanley is that it was not true.
For some people this may not matter. What’s wrong with a symbolic version of rough sleeping anyway? After all, as over half the street homeless are non-UK nationals and solutions to rough sleeping these days often require the resolution of complex immigration issues, this could become an area of unedifying political posturing and extremism. Maybe it is all best left alone.
I hope we don’t accept this course of least resistance. Our obligations are surely to help the public and policy-makers understand why people are sleeping rough in our cities in 2012 and the often strange, initially inexplicable series of circumstances that led them to them ending up there. Then we must demand action, resources and support to end rough sleeping in the UK, for good.
So winter moves into spring. The kaleidoscope twists, the beads scatter and re-form and a new pattern of rough sleeping emerges. The outreach teams will need to adjust to new groups and a different set of challenges. The London Olympics will shake up the street and, further on in time, new countries such as Croatia will join the European Union and their citizens too will journey to the UK. And we look forward to a time when media portrayal of rough sleeping and the public perception that it inevitably shapes bears at least a passing resemblance to the realities on the street.