‘Without a Place to Go’Homeless at Christmas
Manasa Narayanan speaks to people who are homeless, surviving on Westminster’s streets in the shadow of Parliament
For Charlie (not his real name), home is a spot outside London’s Victoria Station. It was a chilly evening, with the temperature hitting lower single digits, made far worse by London’s gusty winds. But he sits on the pavement rather composed, quite indifferent to the surroundings. He’s used to the cold really. He’s been on the streets on and off for almost 10 years.
“But there are a hell of a lot more homeless people than there were, I’ll tell you that,” he told Byline Times. What was to blame? He believes the cost of living crisis has worsened conditions and is driving more people to the streets. “Many people are just one or two paychecks away from homelessness”.
That was some weeks ago. Now, as we approach Christmas and London glitters under festive lights, the UK is facing freezing temperatures, as low as -12℃ in some parts. Many areas are experiencing snow and ice.
Then there is the added burden of the cost of living crisis, which according to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data has increased for nine in 10 people in the UK compared to last year. Further, the Government has done away with the ‘Everyone In’ emergency housing support provided to the homeless during the early months of the Coronavirus pandemic. This means that more people are expected to be struggling with housing this winter.
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Even those who benefited from Everyone In may now be back on the streets.
A report released by Shelter in August 2021 found that a quarter of people who were initially housed in 2020 were likely without any accommodation again by early 2021. Three-quarters of those housed temporarily were not moved onto settled housing as promised.
Confirming these fears, according to the latest annual report by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, statutory homelessness in England is now on an upward trend. In the year 2021-22, 278,110 people were homeless or were threatened with homelessness, an increase of 2.8% over the previous year.
There was an 11% rise in prevention duty in comparison to the previous year. And while relief duty went down by 4% compared to a year before, it was still 2.9 % higher than levels before the pandemic. The latest quarterly figures also show an uptick. Between April and June this year, statutory homelessness went up by 1.3% in comparison to the same quarter the previous year.
Government statistics on rough sleeping from Autumn 2021, meanwhile, suggest there were around 2,440 people sleeping rough on a single night in England. While this was a 9% drop in comparison to the year before – in continuation of what is stated to be a downward trend since 2017 – these numbers are outdated, and the projections for this year look especially bleak.
They may also be an underestimate: according to figures from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), in 2021-22 there were 8,329 people sleeping rough in London alone. Figures from July to September 2022 show a 35% rise in rough sleepers in London from the same period last year. In Westminster alone during that time, the number of rough sleepers went up by 24% in comparison to the same period last year.
In the past few weeks, Byline Times has walked around the streets of Westminster to speak with people sleeping rough this winter. While their stories are various, their experiences all point to the realities of a failed system: one of social and economic inequality.
‘I Could Not Put Up With It Anymore‘
Linda (not her real name) endured years of domestic abuse before deciding, two years ago, that she had had enough. She could not bear it anymore; fleeing to London. Since then she has been mostly on the streets, seeking shelter with a friend on occasion in exchange for £5. Even during the pandemic, she says she was not housed.
Linda had to leave her two children with family and has not had the heart to go see them since. She feels she cannot go meet them while she’s still on the streets. “I don’t want to give them false hopes”, she explains.
Linda wants to work and build her life back up. But for those surviving on the streets, it can be very difficult to escape the trap of homelessness.
“I cannot go in this state to ask for a job expect anyone to put me up,” Linda explains. She has worked several jobs before. But without a home and without a place to clean up, she has no hope of getting and sustaining a job.
Domestic abuse is high up on the list of reasons behind homelessness. In 2021-22, it was the third most cited need by people seeking help for homelessness, and was the reason behind 12% of households losing their “last settled home”.
Victims of domestic abuse do face a difficult choice, especially in the context of the current cost of living crisis.
“Lack of affordable and suitable housing has long been an issue that affects survivors of domestic abuse, with many having to make the unimaginable choice between staying with an abusive partner and risking facing homelessness, and the cost-of-living crisis has exacerbated this,” Ruth Davison, Refuge’s Chief Executive Officer, told Byline Times. Refuge provides support to women and children who have survived domestic abuse.
“A recent survey of Refuge’s front-line staff directly supporting survivors showed that 77% of those surveyed said that the cost-of-living crisis is stopping women from leaving their abusers”, with “more than 50% of Refuge frontline staff” also saying “that the cost-of-living crisis is leading survivors to return to their abusers, putting their lives at risk”.
‘We’ve Been Let Down So Many Times‘
Less than a ten minutes walk from the Parliament, a group of homeless veterans have gathered near Westminster Abbey. A group of female volunteers had stopped by to distribute some hot food.
All four of them were pensioners, in their early and late-60s. They felt let down by the Government. Initially, they were hesitant to speak because they felt there was no point. They had little hope of support. “Nobody takes any notice of us”, James (not his real name) says.
Data for homeless veterans is hard to come by. According to a survey dating back to 2014, the Royal British Legion claims that homelessness among veterans has been on the decline since the 1990s, when it was around 20%, and is now expected to be somewhere around 3 – 6%. But these estimates are based on sparse studies and none of the counts are from recent years.
There are also no official statistics available on this since the British Government does not collect any. “I can’t see how the Government will establish how many people who are homeless are also veterans,” Dr Iain Overton, chief executive of the charity Action On Armed Violence, tells Byline Times.
“One of the challenges for veterans is they’re only still in the system when they are being paid by the Government as a veteran,” he explains. “So if you served less than what would be enough to give you your pension then there’s no reason for them to have your address.”
Overton also points out that if data collection is reliant on self-reporting, then it is quite likely to be an underestimation. He explains that “a lot of people won’t report because they’ll be embarrassed that they worked in the military and are homeless”. On the other hand, it is also possible there is some false reporting, and there would be no way of verification there either.
The Government has flagged veteran homelessness as a priority, and under its Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan, has said it aims to fully end veteran homelessness by 2024.
‘Charities Make Money Out of People’s Misery‘
Many homeless people offered a scathing critique of the charities. “Most of the charities that are saying they are helping the homeless are doing nothing. Absolute nothing… I’ll tell you what your headline should be: ‘Charities make money out of people’s misery.’ That’s what it is,” said James (not his real name), a homeless man in Westminster.
“They actually make our situation worse,” Alistair (not his real name) added.
Councils around the country give charities contracts to provide accommodation and support to homeless people. Alistair believes that by doing so, the councils were simply ridding themselves of the responsibility and passing it on to charities that weren’t actually helping.
Byline Times asked if charities had provided them with any proper accommodation. Alistair shared how he was once put in a hostel where two people were stabbed. “What they do is put people in death traps. They put old people in with teenagers who are on drugs. It’s just the worst thing you can do.”
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James had also had painful experiences in night shelters.
“Every time someone went in there, they got paid 50 quid,” he said. “But they didn’t provide nothing. You had to sleep on seats. Rats and mice lived there.”
Phil (not his real name), who claimed to have served in the military, had a similar story to tell. “They’ve put me in a hostel, in a basement, with bars on my window, and cockroaches and rats. I woke up with cockroaches running about my floor and a male rat on my chest… I am not taking it.” He is now 36 and has been homeless since he was 16.
He now lives in a tent with a few others on the street. They’ve been asked by the council to take these down every morning. “Do you wanna clear your house every morning and rebuild again?” he asks. While he’s doing this exercise every day, he says he has to get his friend, who is also homeless, “to watch my back on the street”. He explained he had “nearly been shot, stabbed…” before. Phil has severe mental health issues but has never been provided with proper support and accommodation.
Jean and Oliver (not their real names) are a homeless couple from Scotland with similar horror stories. Jean showed me pictures from the last hostel they were put in. “This is the shower with a [live] wire sticking out.” One room had mice behind a cupboard; the bath was dirtied with poison put out for rats.
They’ve been homeless for nine weeks, having fled a violent situation. Oliver has got severe lung health issues. He should be in the hospital receiving treatment for it. But because he “does not have secure accommodation”, he is unable to attend to his health. They slept outside the church for a while before they were put in this hostel. Conditions forced them back on the streets.
Westminster Council was approached for comment.