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Wed 12 August 2020
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Drew B explains his experience of sleeping rough in London and his battle on the streets against being deported.

Over the past few years, my local council, along with the Government, has unleashed some interesting initiatives.

The “enforcement officers” of my local borough have been my favourite. Clad in black fatigues, eerily reminiscent of a failed paramilitary coup, they’re sent to “clean up” my newly gentrified area.

Patrolling with keen eyes for rubbish, they fine the public and homeless up to £80 for dropping receipts or throwing away single cigarette butts. Approaching with an air of imposition rather than authority – a step away from “Why are you here?” – they thrust a notepad in your face declaiming you as a litterer.

Those sleeping rough need the public, their faceless neighbours that walk past them on a day-to-day basis, to be the watchdog.

Homeless people are often asking themselves the same question, it seems: is it illegal to just be here? You feel guilty before you have even opened your mouth.

Logically to an enforcement officer, the biggest offenders are the homeless because they spend most of their time lying on the ground. Spotting and removing them could only be a good thing. To that end, thankfully, they deferred to the higher-ups and even to the public. 

They’ve been common enough along the side of any London bus shelter – advertisements that beseech the public to call a number and report rough sleepers. They’re then asked for all relevant information on the location and description of the person, their comings and goings, who they might be. Likely, with all the good intentions in the world, the good Samaritan hangs up and goes on their way with a sense of mission completed.

Outside on the street somewhere, the “rough sleeper” in question is going to receive an unexpected visit, anywhere from a ruffling of the feathers (“No, thank you”), to a new chance at hope (“It’s not a flat but it’s inside”) to a death sentence (“… back to what home?”).

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Here’s what happens at some point in the next few weeks for the rough sleeper. Around 6am to 7am in the morning, two workers from an outreach team “engage” the person by waking them up and asking them how they’d come to be there, how long they’d been there and, most importantly, where they were from.

Along with them could be a team of immigration officers, asking for identification and how long the sleeper had been in the country. Bleary-eyed, it’s a tough choice of who to look at and who to be more wary of – those with the knives behind their backs or those jabbing the pen at you. This all the while being talked to as if you’re the owner of a dog that’s shit on the road without having cleaned it up, except, of course, it’s your life.

Having agreed to the idea of being helped into a hostel (a temporary night shelter) or showing any interest whatsoever, the person would be urged to meet the worker the following day somewhere public like a day centre. A ticket for a shower, have some food, make a call. There, having met with their caseworker to-be, they’ll discuss whether the rough sleeper has identification and their origins. Without proper paperwork, there is largely nothing to be done and no procedure that can go ahead unhindered be it a bank account, job application, GP or library visit.

This can feel like a leap of faith for someone who has the potential to be wary of authority figures in general (isn’t this the system that I wasn’t good enough for?) and who is in an incredibly vulnerable position. You open yourself to these people and expect support – at the very least, a show of humanity. They are supposed to be there to help lift you back up and into a life that you actually want to lead. Emotionally, it’s a precarious place to be – you are hopeful for a better future, but unsure of what it is exactly this person wants from you. “They’re here to help though, aren’t they?” or maybe just “’At least they offered me a fag”.

Slowly, the bad news will be broken – often in a clinical, chastising tone – should you be too honest about breaking up with your spouse or having lost your paperwork. Being merely separated from an EEA (European Economic Area)/British national husband or wife renders you an illegal in the UK – a new challenge with all the unpleasantness already in tow. After this, will come threats of deportation or attempts to remove the said “client” from the borough. At first, there is an offer of a flight back home, then an implied threat or a slow trail of paperwork leading to the Border Agency. As someone who went through the process last year, I can state that I was simply too shocked to react with anything but sadness and dismay.

The likelihood of fighting a successful legal battle, let alone calling an office when you’re fatigued, depressed, and confused, is low. This often leads to sleeping in places one doesn’t necessarily feel safe or comfortable, out of sight of the rest of the world but within proximity to a million other dangers.

Homeless people are often asking themselves the same question, it seems: is it illegal to just be here? You feel guilty before you have even opened your mouth.

You already feel as though you’re in trench warfare – sore, cracked feet from bacteria in shower stalls, no bus fare, at the mercy of the weather, sweaty but incapable of washing clothes regularly – just a few of the things that bring you to your lowest. Morale isn’t even the word because eventually the battle becomes you; it is simply weathering an endless storm. While the rest of the world is walking off to work or their various appointments unaware of the real-life drama unfolding in the side street next to them.


It became worse in the build-up to and after the Brexit referendum.

Only public backlash lead to its end, that and the tenacity of the homeless – particularly a case brought before the High Court that ruled it was unlawful to deport rough sleepers from the EEA in December 2017.

Regardless of the origin of the person, the relationship between organisations claiming to be sent to help the homeless and the Border Agency or the police offer a frightening glimpse into a world where bureaucracy and technicalities lead to open warfare on an incredibly vulnerable – yet still valuable – segment of society. There is a feeling that they have the power to act in this way while the public is ignorant or disaffected due to the current political climate, and that they will make the best of it while they can. Or worse, they feel this will set a precedent and become the new climate. 

Those sleeping rough need the public, their faceless neighbours that walk past them on a day-to-day basis, to be the watchdog – it’s often the only defence they have against authority. They themselves feel faceless, but not nameless, and their word often feels to count for nothing. 

I don’t think Orwell would have approved of any of it. It’s one thing to be Down and Out and another to be ejected from one dystopic society into another, where looking back at those in a position of power necessitates a hungry challenge in the eyes to gain any foothold in the world, when life’s throwing you consistent curveballs.

You open yourself to these people and expect support – at the very least, a show of humanity.

Try registering for anything that requires standing in a queue knowing you’re reeking but incapable of getting to a nearby shower or feeling too shy to go stink up a friend’s doorstep in an already hectic world. For a “regular guy” on the streets, any everyday encounter of a social kind feels like going into a job interview. More than socialising in any form, you feel cast as a wounded soldier stripped of uniform, un-showered, and with no worthy story to tell.

This year, it has seemed safe to speak with the street teams sent to deal with those of us in this “unfortunate” situation, but my advice is you’re still better off keeping mum on anything related to your legal status in the UK if your paperwork isn’t finalised or if there are any grey areas that could be used by those with quotas – those forever waiting in the rafters, ready to swoop down and eject you.

I’ve already led a nomadic life and I want to place my roots with the people I love regardless of where they are. Fortunately, the local teams have changed for the better since the 2017 court ruling. Now, you’re allowed the possibility of a roof over your head in a night shelter (albeit with their own issues) and ongoing support with the process of claiming benefits. It’s enough to start work again. But, this took close to two years of being on the streets, trying to work on and off six days a week in kitchens for up to 10-12 hours and going through my own heartache. All the while struggling to save money and then falling back down through the gap somewhere.

The answer doesn’t lie in anything but unity and understanding of the human condition. It’s about maintaining the virtue of the people and it starts with those in the most vulnerable positions.

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