Growing number of rough sleepers in London: has enough been done?

Photo Credit: Garry Knight

London has seen the most dramatic increase in the number of rough sleepers during last year, and almost 80% more since 2010. Ken, Ali, and Kevin, are just some in this growing group.Why the many pledges and actions taken by the authorities have not stopped, if not cleared, the increase?

Lonely life on the street

“It’s not only a matter to get a job – Ken tells me. I worked here, in some pizzerias, some bars. But when you get into the position I am now, it is not easy to get out.”
I meet Ken on Euston road, close to St Pancras station entrance. In a sunny day of April, with a clear sky, he was sitting with a sleeping bag on his knees, wearing a black hat and a scarf around the neck. “When you are alone, you get into a sort of depression,” he says.

Ken, 27, left his country when he was seventeen years old. His swollen hands, with black nails and small cuts here and there among the fingers, move very slowly with no large gestures while he is talking.
He tried to seek assistance in centres for homeless people. After some months, he left, because they asked him to find a job, but he was unable to recover himself. Back to the street. Back to the centre. And back again to the street, in an endless circle.

“People run out of friends before they run out of money,” explains me Jon Jon Hilton, Drop In Supervisor at the London Jesus Centre. Most people assume the main reason for homelessness is the lack of job. Therefore, it is an economic matter, but, as Jon Jon explains me, “it is indeed a social and relation factor.”
With no friends, no family, rough sleepers do not only need time to recover from a critical situation, but they need to learn to trust the other people again. “They often want to deal their crisis by themselves, which makes things even worse.” No one can save himself alone.

Almost 40% more people are rough sleeping in the streets of London, in comparison with the previous year. These statistics, released by the Department for Communities and Local Government on the 26 February 2015, are the result of a single night count in autumn 2014.

The number of rough sleepers in England, in total, rose 55% for the last four years.
London’s rough sleepers amount to 27% of the total England’s rate. The city offers many services, not only for what regards professional routes, but also for homeless people. Despite this, the capital sees the most dramatic increase for the whole country. The percentage of rough sleepers reaches 79% when considered data from 2010.

Broken promises?

1 February 2009: the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, made a pledge – in the draft London Housing Strategy - to end rough sleeping by 2012 Olympic Games. The London Councils supported his commitment. In order to achieve this result, the Mayor established the London Delivery Board, a body that saw the cooperation of the Mayor’s Housing Advisor, London boroughs, governments departments, voluntary sectors providers, and key stakeholders.
Photo Credit: Stephen McKay

Two years later, on the 1st of April, the pilot project No Second Night Out was launched. The service aims to make people who find themselves rough sleeping for the first time not spend another night on London streets. It includes: 24-hour helpline and a website to report rough sleepers; three assessment hubs open 24/7 to enable outreach workers to take the person found on the street to the appropriate assistance. The Government’s Preventing Homelessness Grant financially supports the project.

According to Chain database – which collects information on rough sleepers met by street outreach teams – 70% of new rough sleepers were only seen once in the last year. The rate would prove the success of No Second Night Out project.

Every year, the Mayor of London spends about £9 million on services and projects for rough sleepers, which operate all over the city. Social Impact Bond – which provides support for entrenched rough sleepers -, No Second Night Out, and StreetLink are among them.

“It has been useful to have a coordination and a service to engage with the people in the street – said Jon Jon Hilton, from the London Jesus Centre. It helped to manage with the most immediate crisis.”
He tells me that more emergency accommodations, indeed, would be a great solution. “People often need just to sleep. Some of them didn’t sleep for two days, and what was a small problem becomes very difficult. What they just need is a place to sleep safe after 48hours, to be able to come back on their feet.”

The apparent success of the project launched by the Mayor of London inspired a plan on a larger scale. In July 2011, the Department for Communities and Local Government issued the document Vision to End Rough Sleeping: No Second Night Out Nationwide. Among the commitments, it reads: “Provide an additional £20m to Homeless Link for a new Homelessness Transition Fund to support the roll out of No Second Night Out and the delivery of strategic rough sleeper accommodation services.”

A more complex picture

Ali, from Iran, is silently reading from the New Testament while I pass close to him. Five minutes away from Victoria Coach Station, he has collected his belongings next to the wall.
The police has never tried to remove him from his place, where he settled four months ago. “They know I am not drunk, I have no drug problems. They are nice, they let me alone,” he tells me.
The charities accepted Ali for a limited time. The job centre comes as compulsory step immediately afterwards in order to stay. The problem is that Ali is not allowed to work. He said in two years he may try to appeal in the court, and maybe would be able to claim benefits. They are only two years.
Despite the nights spent with no roof over his head, he does not want to come back to the country from where he fled years ago. “It is too difficult, there are too many limitations there,” he says.
Photo Credit: Ant Smith
“I have been lucky,” Kevin admits, instead. “In almost five months, we have managed to get a home from Lambeth council.” With the help from Ace of Clubs – supporting community in Lambeth for homeless and vulnerable people -, he is now doing some work in pottery. He showed me pictures of a saxophone vase he made. In some time, maybe he will be able to pay his rent on his own, and not rely anymore on council benefits.
When he lost his job, Kevin lost also his home. He had to remake the request to claim benefits many times. “They said they couldn’t help me because I did not use drugs, was not gay, did not have health problems. But I still did not have where to go. I needed a roof, and there was no help for me.”

The number of people asking for help at Ace of Clubs was more than doubled during the last year. “It is not just a matter of money to invest in the problem itself,” Sarah Miles, manager at the centre, tells me. There should be appropriate policies, funds invested in the appropriate services - like for mental health issues - which meet the real and current needs for those people. However, for this kind of solutions “you need time, you cannot provide them immediately,” she says, referring to the two/three years’ time the Mayor pledged for stopping rough sleeping.

Ace of Clubs has established a very good relation with the local community. Schools, churches, local shops, little organisations in the area are all very generous, Sarah tells me, but “we do not get any financial assistance from Lambeth.”

More than 8.6 million of people live in London, according to Greater London Authority’sfigures released in February this year. The peak was reached once in the past, before Second World War.
All these Londoners occupy the same portion of land Great Britain has ever been, as the territory will not expand along with the population. There are more people, but the living space is not sufficient.

“People just land in London, and they manage to stay here and there to some friends’ house,” Sarah tells me. They look for an irregular job, so that they earn in cash, pay the rent in cash – subletting, in most cases – and wander in the city for three or four years in this way. “Those people will never exist for the state. When they lose their job, they lose the house, any social relation, and they end on the street. For all this time, there is no record of their presence in the country. And still they are here.”

What is next?

No comment for this report was received from the authorities, which include London Councils, Greater London Authority, Department for Communities and Local Government. Thus, all the statements that follow were collected through documents accessible to the public.

Photo Credit: Blodeuwedd
On the 12th of March this year, the Mayor of London has made £30 million available for London’s boroughs, voluntary organisations, and housing providers. Department of Health provides half of the fund. The aim is to improve hostel services and deliver new accommodation, especially for young people. According to recent report in Thames Reach’s website –not yet backed up by CHAIN annual report- 57% of London's rough sleepers were aged between 26-45.

London Infrastructure Plan 2050 – for the estimated need of an additional 1.5 million homes - along with the commitment to get empty houses back into use, are also in the Mayor’s agenda for the future.

Addressing Complex Needs: Improving Services for Vulnerable Homeless People is the report published on March 2015 by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It established the Ministerial Working Group’s achievements and the plans for homelessness in the country.
It gives “a vision for an innovative new approach to delivering services into the next parliament and beyond,” as the foreword by Kris Hopkins reads – MP Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Among further proposals, there are more commissions and more collaborative work with the volunteering sector, as well as with the local authorities. Payment by results will be also in use, as more investment are pointless if the existing programmes do not work well.

Looking for the word “end”

Half of the rough sleepers in London are non-UK nationals. Half of them are 26-45 years old. Half of them need support for mental health problems.
The number of rough sleepers in the city has not been reduced, but it has reached even higher levels.

The real needs of the rough sleepers often are not the most obvious ones.
“This is a safe place,” Sarah Miles, manager at Ace of Clubs tells me. “It is important the people who come here are valued. It is more about building up a relation with them, and make them trust you.”

The effective solutions would meet the current necessities, which increasingly are not only economic needs.
Photo Credit: David Dennis