London’s Homelessness Crisis

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Putting faces to the faceless: Voice of London speaks to Sian, a rough sleeper who calls the Strand branch of Tesco, her bedroom. 

Sian sat outside Tesco Strand Express  | Photo by Katherine Cenaj

“I used to volunteer in homeless shelters a couple years ago” says Sian who’s bundled up under a sleeping bag with her hat pulled down over her ears, sat outside Tesco Strand Express. She looks as if she’s in her forties but after speaking to her, I find out she’s only 34. There is a steady stream of people walking by, each more excited than the other about the West-End show they’re en-route to see, or the Christmas lights and festivities just around the corner; yet no one seems to notice her. It’s a tale as old as time as Sian says: “you don’t think it’ll ever happen to you, but it does.”

“I used to work for the NHS. I was dismissed last year after prolonged sickness. I put out my back through working and then I lost my job and I lost everything. I lost my flat in April and there’s only so much sleeping on other people’s sofas you can do.”

Sian is just one of the estimated 1,137 rough sleepers in London on any given night. Official figures show that the number of those sleeping on the streets has risen for the 7th year running. The statistics are taken from snapshot counts of a single night where volunteers take to the streets to count rough sleepers. The definition of a rough sleeper: people sleeping, about to bed down or bedded down on the street, in doorways, parks, tents, bus shelters, cars, barns, sheds and other places not designed for habitation.

Statistics from Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government | Graph by Katherine Cenaj

However, this strict definition casts a shadow of doubt on the accuracy of data and fuels the fears that the true level of homelessness is much higher. Charities found that this year between the months of July and September 3,103 people were sleeping on the streets of the Capital.

On a 14-minute walk from Charing Cross Station to Tesco Strand Express and back again, I counted 22 rough sleepers, not including those who were queuing awaiting hot food and drink from the soup kitchen.

At this time of year when the weather is nearing freezing, volunteers hit the streets to bring essentials and lend a shoulder of support to those in need: “there’s a few women who I’ve got to know. They drop off care packages, and..” Sian pauses “ladies’ things, you know?”

“They gave me a new hat today” she smiles proudly whilst showing me the purple beanie with a black bobble she has tucked away into her bag to ‘keep safe’. “and a Christmas card, drawn and signed by a kid.” Sian produces it from under her sleeping bag and shows me, tears beginning to fall down her gaunt face. An A4 piece of card folded in half with a Christmas tree drawn on the front; the inside simply reads ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Love Sophie’ in large, childish handwriting. “I’m sorry, normally I’m better than this. Sometimes it just gets to you and today I can’t help it” Sian says whilst wiping away her tears with the back of the hand.

Glancing up at the Christmas decorations which adorn the nights sky is far from the reality of the homeless community who call Strand their bedroom. The main street is scattered with people in vibrant sleeping bags and large puffer coats. Doorways are littered with plastic carrier bags stuffed with extra clothes and blankets, food wrappers from whichever fast-food chain is located the closest and sometimes even a few cider bottles.

 

For Sian, the feeling of being invisible is in equal parts good and bad: “I wouldn’t mind a dose of hep c, eh darling?” and “ha, we’re rich” are just two of the insults she has received in the last 24 hours. These are the type of human interactions which make her wish no-one could see her at all. “I never know what’s going to happen next when something says something to me.”

When living on the streets, the danger of violence is part of the bargain. Crisis, a charity who works side by side with the homeless community in a bid to re-build their lives have found that almost 8 out of 10 have suffered some sort of violence, abuse or anti-social behaviour in the past year.

“I was assaulted a little while back, you can still see it” Sian says as she points to her right cheek. “Punched in the face by a man, I didn’t do anything, mind. I ended up in hospital with a facial fracture and now I have a metal plate in my face.” Her voice breaks. “Was he caught?” I ask.

“No, he’s still out there, you could say I’ve lost faith in humanity.”

 

Read more on homelessness: 

 

Words: Katherine Cenaj | Subbing: Victoria Locke