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Homeless people abandoned in a system ‘designed to fail’

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Despite Tory promises to house homeless people, the most vulnerable are left struggling with a situation that’s only getting worse. Sadie Robinson spoke to people living on the streets in a city under lockdown
Issue 2703
The government claims to have offered accommodation - but many people are still left sleeping on the streets
The government claims to have offered accommodation – but many people are still left sleeping on the streets (Pic: Guy Smallman)

People are being “eaten alive” by lice and starving on Britain’s streets because the Tories have abandoned homeless people during the coronavirus crisis.

The government claims to offer ­temporary accommodation in hotels to people sleeping rough. In reality, the most vulnerable are being left to rot.

“They’ve shut all the services—there’s nothing,” Tom, who has been homeless for three years, told Socialist Worker. “Everything’s gone. I haven’t got a toilet so if I need to have a shit on the street then I’m going to.

“The place where we used to get showers and get clothes washed is closed. We’ve all got body lice. I had an abscess on my foot where I got bit.

“They’re all over everybody, you can see everybody itching. We’re all getting eaten alive.”

Tom has been forced to beg in central London. But with the lockdown, there are far fewer people around to ask for money.

Homeless people in the capital have become more visible on the ­otherwise near-deserted streets. Elias, stood outside a Tesco next to the Houses of Parliament, has been homeless for seven years.

“St Mungo’s shelter is full and ­everything else is closed,” he said. “There never was anything for us but now it’s even worse.”

Aaron was made newly homeless when he was released from prison in April. “I wish I was back inside to be honest,” he said.

“It’s really hard under the lockdown because no centres are open. Even churches that usually give out food are shut. I’ve been staying by Downing Street the last few nights and I’ve got soaking wet.

“They say people will be put up in hotels, but I’ve not seen them put me up anywhere.”

Others know of some homeless people who have been offered hotels—but it’s patchy to say the least. Rory, ­homeless near Trafalgar Square, hasn’t been offered anything. “They say they’re ­putting people in hotels—well they are and they aren’t,” he told Socialist Worker.

Tom said he is on a list for a hotel place after being in contact with a ­homelessness charity, but still hasn’t been offered one.

And Mike, sat near Charing Cross ­station with his dog, said he hasn’t “been approached by anyone about going into a hotel”.

“A lot of people have been put in hotels, it’s true,” he said. “But there are still a lot of people out here.”

Some people have had no shower for four weeks. There are women who had their period a week ago and have no new knickers, no tampons, no showers.

Mikkel, Under One Sky

And life for them has got harder. “The local Sainsbury’s won’t serve the ­homeless and lots of places are card only,” said Tom.

“We used to sleep in Charing Cross subway, now they’ve shut it off. They just kicked us out, arrested a couple of people.”

Tom said reports that homeless people are being housed affect how people see him. “They’re telling people they’re ­helping the homeless, but they’re not helping,” he said.

“So people will look at me and think why is he sat there begging when they’ve offered him a hotel? They’ll be thinking, he’s a druggie or he’s done something wrong.”

The lack of support for homeless people has led to a surge in demand for the volunteers who try to fill the gap.

Mikkel set up Under One Sky (UOS), a collection of volunteers who provide food, drink and support to homeless people in London.

“The immediate issue people had when the lockdown began was food,” he told Socialist Worker. “A couple of days in, we met a man who hadn’t eaten for six days.”

He said there was an “air of ­desperation among homeless people” from the start. Some didn’t understand what was happening.

“If you don’t read the papers you wouldn’t know about the virus,” said Mikkel. “Suddenly the city was just ­shutting down.”

UOS said the situation on London’s streets has been “shocking”. “Cut off from the marginal support network on which they rely, the homeless people we spoke to were scared and literally starving,” it said. Since then, things have got worse.

“The huge issue now is hygiene,” said Mikkel. “There are no toilets—cafes, pubs and so on are closed. Before the lockdown, people could get showers in day centres and hostels. But all these facilities are closed.

“There are people with lice. Some people have had no shower for four weeks. There are women who had their period a week ago and have no new knickers, no tampons, no showers.

“People have no change of clothing. So there is a big issue with people’s physical health but also their mental health. People are losing it a bit more day by day.”

Its become much harder to get help or money in central London under lockdown
It’s become much harder to get help or money in central London under lockdown (Pic: Guy Smallman)

On 29 April, UOS said it had served more meals in the previous three weeks than it had in eight years. And it reported “nightly increases in the amount of people on the streets”.

For all the Tories’ talk of ­protecting workers’ jobs and wages under the ­furlough scheme, many people have been thrown out of work. Some 1.5 ­million people applied for Universal Credit within six weeks of the lockdown.

And as people suffer agonising waits for meagre benefits, landlords are ­evicting them if they can’t pay their rents. “New people are forced out every day,” said UOS. People with no ­experience of being on the streets face an appalling situation.

“In our eight-year experience, we have never witnessed a more distressing situation for London’s homeless than the one unfolding right now,” it said.

“Basic needs are not being met. Many people are hungry. Hygiene is deteriorating. Substance abuse is spiralling out of control.

“Dealers are ruthlessly exploiting the situation. Central London feels tense and jittery. The empty streets are ­getting more violent.”

Aaron was angry at the Tories’ deadly inaction. “The government should have more people in the streets looking for people who need help, especially at night,” he said.

“The government could be doing more,” added Rory. “They should be giving out clothing packs and stuff.”

And Tom was furious that he, a “street bum,” could see how to solve the crisis when those at the top seemingly cannot.

“It’s common sense,” he said. “Why not get a message around—‘At six o’clock on Friday can we have all the homeless in Leicester Square please?’

“They should’ve done this on day one. Get all the services there in one go. Register people, get them into hotels—and it’s done.

“If I can come up with a system that would work, why can’t they? They’re supposed to be clever.”

With the coronavirus we’ve been knocked down a level. Just when you think you can’t get any lower you do.


Mikkel said the immediate problems ­homeless people face are “extremely simple” to solve.

“Everyone’s not going to get a hotel room,” he said. “So the government should set up food solutions. Currently people have to stand in line to get a meal—it’s hard to social distance.

“The government should set up portaloos and mobile showers. They should set up stations where people can get underwear, socks, toiletries.

“They built the Nightingale Hospital quickly, they could build other ­temporary facilities.

“If music festivals can set up ­portaloos in a day, why can’t the government? We are over a month in and it’s still not happening.

“It wouldn’t cost much to do these things. It’s not a cost issue—it’s a choice.”

Tom agreed. “It’s because they don’t want things that work for us,” he said. “Everything in this system is shit. It’s designed to fail.

“You get called a conspiracy ­theorist when you start criticising the ­government. But for me it’s a big ‘Fuck the system’.”

Despite the horrors, Mike said some have been “deluded” by Tory ­propaganda. “Some people seem to think that, when this is over, they will get housed,” he said.

“I don’t think they will house ­everyone, because the hotels will want to be making money again.”

Aaron said things would always be “really hard” for homeless people. “It’s a sad and lonely life,” he said. “It’s not living, it’s just existing.”

Tom added, “With the coronavirus we’ve been knocked down a level. Just when you think you can’t get any lower you do.

“We’re meant to be part of society too aren’t we?”

‘We need to shout about this’

The government announced in late March that it would house all of London’s rough sleepers. It hasn’t. The Under One Sky (UOS) group of volunteers began a nightly service on 2 April to feed homeless people in the capital. In 20 days it had served more than 4,000 meals.

Founder Mikkel said, “We are feeding between 250 and 350 people every night. And our numbers have been constant over the last three weeks. We know of another charity that serves around 200 meals a day in the same areas as us too.”

He added, “Quite a rosy picture has been painted about homeless people being put up in hotels.

“Some people are in hotels, but they aren’t getting any food. Some people have been waiting to get a call back and haven’t had one. The council has outreach teams but they’re short staffed.

“And a lot of homeless people have problems with mobile phones—they can’t charge them, they run out of credit, or they have phones stolen.”

Mikkel said there was a level of ignorance in the government about the reality of life for rough sleepers. But he also said there was “unwillingness” to help.

UOS had sent an open letter to Boris Johnson and London mayor Sadiq Khan about the situation but received no feedback on the specific issues raised.

“We need people to scream and shout about this,” said Mikkel. “The government talks about ending homelessness by 2025.

“They claim to care about homelessness. But they don’t care about the individuals who make up the homeless.”

Brutal and broken benefits

Tom became homeless after being refused benefits. “I’ve worked all my life, but I got problems with my spine so I had to pack it in,” he said.

“At one point I was getting £180 a month but my rent was £500.

“I went to the council for help. If you don’t have your benefits, they won’t house you. I needed to have medicals to prove I couldn’t work to get my benefits. It took two and a half years to sort this out.”

A brutal benefits system led to three years of homelessness.

And now, as the coronavirus tears through vulnerable people, authorities wash their hands of the problems.

“I’ve done everything right but they’re not helping me,” he said. “We’ve been left and abused, and that’s that.”

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