(Image Credit: Shreeyashi Ojha)
Once a businesswoman with dreams like any of us, Tessa wanders the streets of London, sleeping on cardboard.
London, with the majestic sights of Westminster and the London Bridge on the banks of the Thames, all bathed in warm and inviting sunshine while hidden behind a veil of mist, is the city of dreams. However, for many, it is hardship and homelessness!
The harsh truth of the developed nations lies in the mundane when its citizens are on the streets, shivering, homeless and hungry. Some of these people do not have sleeping bags, blankets, or mattresses to beat the weather, which will only get worse.
Trying to save their “home” from the rains, many rough sleepers sit under shades of shops and restaurants, whereas some are seen in the tube stations. With the UK government spending £2 billion over three years tackling homelessness and rough sleeping, the condition is despicable.
Homelessness cannot be evaluated in quantity because there are different categories of homeless. Primarily there are rough sleepers and intermittent rough sleepers. However, there is another category called sofa surfers.
Also known as hidden homelessness, sofa surfing is living in temporary accommodations at friends’ or a relative's.’ Though they are not considered “homeless,” they do not have permanent residence.
“I lived with my sister, but due to my addiction, she threw me out. After that, my best friend took me in for a few months. However, that didn’t end well. I lived with my aunt for a few days, but it was not permanent, and since then, I have been on the streets. I have been in and out of many community accommodations, but they are all temporary.”
- Alec, 28.
Rough Sleepers in London have risen by 24 percent since 2021. As per reports, more than 3500 people were on the streets between June to September 2022. More than half of them were sleeping rough for the first time, which has increased by 35 percent. As homelessness slowly creeps back towards pre-pandemic levels, more than 450 people live on the streets full-time. These numbers are almost double what they were before the pandemic. Though many people periodically sleep rough, half of the capital’s rough sleepers are the citizens of the UK!
The estimated age of rough sleepers usually ranges between 36 to 55 years, and most struggle with mental health issues, addiction, and deficiency. Moreover, the largest foreign populations are from Romania and Poland. Ervin, 56, from Albania, does not understand or speak English; he begs for alms and sleeps outside Marks and Spencer store on Oxford Street. He has been on the streets for two months, but there has been no help or relief provided to him. He also has a friend who wanders the streets of Westminster, just like him.
Ironically, the Westminster borough, which houses U.K.’s most powerful, also accommodates the maximum percentage of rough sleepers in London. As per the official website of the Council, they spent a total sum of £7 million to support the cause, but the numbers have only increased. As per the latest report published by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), the number of rough sleepers has increased from 699 in the first quarter to 853 in the second quarter.
“I had a family and a business, but I lost it during the pandemic. My husband left me, and due to a delay in paying the rent, the landlord kicked me out. I had nowhere to go, so I began living on the streets. The community centers help us, but only for some time, they cannot give us homes, and the government doesn’t care.”
- Tessa, 38, living on the streets of Westminster
Reasons for Homelessness:
Often a chain of life events leads to an individual becoming homeless, including poor physical health, addictions of any kind, grief, mental health issues, an experience of the criminal justice system or poverty, etc. However, today the cost of living crisis is one of the leading causes. Soaring bills, ever-rising inflation, and continuous rent hi have played their part as the cost of living crisis deepens its claws. With a further fall in temperature, the energy bills are predicted to rise to £4,000 per year by January 2023. Essential commodities are getting more expensive by the day, with inflation at 9.4 percent. Moreover, with the looming fear of recession, it isn't easy to cope with the current situation.
Food banks are running low, and many people skip meals to save money. Increased inflation and bills have led to a rise in rents which is another cause for the sudden spike in rough sleeping. A stagnant average income cannot bear the burden of rising expenses. Therefore, delay in payment of rent has resulted in increasing cases of evictions. Unaffordable energy bills have been cited as the driving factor behind rising rents, thus causing homelessness. The housing crisis in London has been well exposed; interestingly, the rents have risen by 16% compared to 2021. The number of evictions due to delays in the payment of rent has increased fourfold.
Another leading driver of homelessness is “no-fault evictions”; however, the Westminster government promised to ban them in 2019. Since then, almost 230,000 private renters have received a section 21 notice, amounting to one message every seven minutes.
“I worked as a masseuse but was fired. Unable to pay the rent, I borrowed from a friend but couldn’t pay her back. So I left that place and came here. Since then, I have been looking for work but have been unsuccessful. I have tried to talk to the people from the government, but all they do is ask for information but never return with a solution.”
- Noori, a migrant from Iran.
What is the government doing?
The government is taking due steps to curb homelessness, including social housing targets, introduction of affordable housing, funding organizations, and community care centers, providing respite through accommodations, etc. However, these measures have been futile. The rising energy crisis, inflation, recession, and an economic slump have been the driving factors for poverty, homelessness, and hunger. Furthermore, community care centers, NGOs, and other organizations working for the homeless have also been unsuccessful in helping those in need. Interestingly, the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) figures are the only data in England that measures rough sleeping. Robust methods for recording the numbers of rough sleepers for the whole country are needed so support services can be adequately planned and sufficiently funded.
“The community care centers rarely help, and when they give you a place to stay, it is full of junkies. Police raids, loud noises, brawls, and petty thievery are common. It is difficult to live on the road, but better than what these centers provide us.”
- Lee, 45, living on Oxford Street
What Can More Be Done?
The Government has considerably invested in helping the homeless, but the key is to cure the root cause for maximum impact. Rehabilitating those with addictions and providing mental health support services can be the best approach. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, recognizing the issue at hand, appealed to the Government to freeze the rent. However, rent freeze, subsidies, and infused funding are effective measures but short-term.
Despite our progress in helping people off our streets, the extraordinary financial pressures from the cost of living crisis are putting the poorest Londoners at growing risk of homelessness.
This cannot be allowed to continue. The Govt must take immediate action.
— Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (@MayorofLondon) October 30, 2022
The Government should focus on eradicating the problem rather than resorting to a quick fix, beginning with the introduction of a complete recording of rough sleepers by a Government-backed entity so that support services can be sufficiently planned and funded. Furthermore, reversing its freeze on the value of Local Housing Allowance rates will help people claim universal credit or housing benefits to renting at least three in every ten of the most affordable properties in any given area.
How Can You Help?
A warm greeting can make all the difference. Mental health is not only affected by lack of means but also by loneliness and isolation. Therefore, a simple hello with a smile is the best foot forward. Furthermore, download the StreetLink app or call the charity on 0300 500 0914, or visit its website and share the location and other information. The shared details will be forwarded to a local outreach worker, who will help them. However, if they are under 18, contact the police. And if they need medical attention, then contact 999. Alternatively, you may contact organizations and community care centers working for the cause.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a small step.” - Lao Tzu
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