Gimme shelter: stories from London’s homeless
The following interviews are the result of two days spent in the City of Westminster: the UK borough with the highest population of homeless people. Most of the men and women we spoke to were regularly sleeping rough, and all of them acknowledged a recent surge in numbers among rough sleepers; a claim resoundingly backed up by recent statistics. Throughout the UK, rough sleeping has risen by 30% in the past year, and according to the Greater London Authority, 7,581 people slept rough in London at least once between April 2014 and March last year; a figure that has doubled in five years, and doesn’t include the hundreds more “hidden homeless”, who don’t show up on official statistics.
While many of the people we met were understandably reluctant to be photographed or featured in a newspaper, they all spoke articulately about the particular conditions of their homelessness: the misfortunes that led them to the street, the statutory blind spots that make them exempt from or ineligible for immediate help, the numerous personal and legal obstacles between them and a warm place to sleep. Some with resignation, some with disbelief, all the interviewees expressed the lack of sympathy or respect they receive, from local councils, from the police, and from ordinary passersby.
Immigration has played its part in increased homelessness in London, with an estimated third of the capital’s rough sleepers coming from eastern Europe. A greater problem, however, is the dearth of formal accommodation to combat the deepening crisis. Hostels, run by local authorities to provide immediate support for rough sleepers, are constantly oversubscribed and, thanks to persistent funding cuts, increasingly being forced to close. Equally problematic is the dramatic decline in stocks of social housing, leaving fewer and fewer long-term solutions to individual homelessness.
Only one of our interviewees is female, a fairly accurate representation of the demographics of homelessness. Sophie Balaam, of homeless charity the Connection at St Martin’s, told me that only one in 10 of the charity’s clients are women, these women being “especially vulnerable” and more likely to suffer from mental health issues. The actual number of homeless women is probably much higher than this statistic suggests, but studies by the homeless charity Crisis have shown that women are less likely to seek help or even allow themselves to be seen on the streets. It goes almost without saying that mental illness and substance abuse are locked in a vicious circle with homelessness, each enabling and aggravating the other.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of these interviews is the sheer variety of testimonies we encountered. No two stories are similar, and there seems to be no predictable or formulaic path from a comfortable home to a life on the streets. There are as many ways of becoming homeless as there are homeless people, in other words, and almost no one is immune. It is important to recognise that the thousands of homeless people who share our cities differ from us only in terms of their misfortune, and deserve to be acknowledged and accounted for, not dismissed, despised or ignored.
The one characteristic our interviewees do share is that, one way or another, they are being failed by the systems that exist to protect them. They have fallen though holes in the social safety net, and are unable to clamber back up. Some have failed to qualify for priority accommodation, some have despaired of the interminable bureaucracy they face when seeking social recognition, some have special needs, which the support system in its current state simply cannot meet.
I’ve been in London since last May, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of grief and aggro I’ve been given by the police. On one day, I was checked against the criminal register 10 times. A lot of homeless people are drinkers, rude, abusive, and they tar everyone with the same brush.
This is Troy – he’s my best friend. He’s a polecat, and I saved him from being put down. The lady who owned him couldn’t afford his vet’s bills, and his brothers and sisters kept attacking him, because he was the runt of the litter.
It’s very hard being a woman on the streets – there’s so much to cope with, keeping myself safe, keeping Troy safe. I sleep in a car park, but you always have one eye open. The other night a big homeless guy was threatening me – clenching his fist and asking for money. A man walked past and I said: “Can you help? He’s trying to rob me,” but the man just walked away. Then a woman came and stood with me for 20 minutes, until the guy left me alone. I thought it was funny that the bloke wouldn’t stop and help, but the woman did.
I was a chef for eight years, but my circumstances changed and I had to quickly move away from where I was. If I manage to get in some place, get settled, I’d like to make wedding cakes for a living. Recession or no, people won’t save on their wedding cake.
People often stop and talk to me – they say I’m too young, too well spoken to be homeless. I came to London because I thought that as there are loads of hostels, I wouldn’t have to live on the street. How wrong I was. I spent a few nights in a place for the recently homeless called the Hub, but they kept moving me around and then they said Troy couldn’t sleep inside. The other people there were all men and they kept saying he smelled. I just said: “If he can’t sleep here, neither can I”, and that was that.
I tend to keep myself to myself because of the situation I was in before I came here – I don’t trust other people. It’s lonely, but Troy makes it easier – he gives me something to wake up for. People say to me: “You should give him to someone who has a home”, and I think, so it’s fine for people to have dogs that they leave alone in the house for nine hours a day, but this is unacceptable? I give him all the attention he deserves. Tomorrow’s his first birthday. I know it sounds sad, but we’re going to have a party.
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