UK MP: What I learnt when I spent a week sleeping on the streets
London, March 15, 2018 (AltAfrika)-Afew weeks ago, I walked into the piazza at Covent Garden and bedded down for the night.
As I approach the awning of St Paul’s Church under which I plan to sleep, I run into a homeless lady drinking Lucozade, who tells me “they are taking over the planet – the next stage could be torture for everyone”. She declines my offer of help, and I ask the other people already bedded down under the church awning whether it’s OK for me to lay out my cardboard there. The friendly Italian man tells me that it’s fine, as he beds down next to a Romanian couple in sleeping bags who are browsing their phones.
Some nights there are over 4,000 people sleeping rough in the UK, over 1,000 of them in London, and here in Westminster somewhere between 200-250 each night. I am joining them for seven nights during the February Parliamentary Recess. I last did this 27 years ago as a fresh-faced former army officer who wanted to become a TV reporter. Now I am doing it as a fatter middle-aged MP for a special edition of ITV’s Tonight programme. As you would expect, some things are very different, but much has remained the same.
Back in 1991 there was, as now, no shortage of kindness and compassion from the public and charitable institutions. (I wake up the next morning in Covent Garden to find a couple of tins of lemonade and some fast food left on the ground next to me.) You can still find food and help at numerous mobile soup kitchens or day centres at most times of day. Homeless people tend to congregate where there are services for them, which is why so many are in central London. Three decades ago there were few serious efforts to try and get homeless people off the streets. Now the government, local authorities and the Mayor of London are putting money where their mouths are; they try to get people off the streets as rapidly as they find them. Nationally they run the No Second Night Out scheme, which aims to do exactly what it says once a newly homeless person has been found by the outreach teams that now patrol the streets of our big cities.
or the next few days I wander across central London, only returning at night to my sleep site in Covent Garden, and another round the back of McDonald’s in front of Westminster Cathedral. Here I bed down at the invitation of a 30-year-old man from the north of England, who is anxious for company. He is drinking beer bought with the £30 that members of the public have given him that evening.
I have called him several times since and his phone remains unanswered or goes to voicemail.
After about three days I need to move the film on a bit, to test out precisely what the authorities do when you are picked up. I report myself to the national rough sleeping helpline Streetlink and am put into the computer system at a day centre. I am told to return to my sleep site and wait to be found by outreach workers – in order to establish that I am genuinely sleeping on the streets. It could take from one to three days.
I return to my spot under the church awning on Covent Garden. It’s busier tonight, as the Romanian couple have been joined by several friends. I lie in my sleeping bag trying to keep up with constituents’ emails on my iPhone.
Later in the day, after an assessment interview, I leave – not wanting to take a valuable place in this shelter for a second night. The St Mungo’s staff’s good humour is matched only by their compassion and kindness: indeed, when I discharge myself, the centre’s manager follows me into the street and tells me I do not need “to do it on your own”, and that I should come back so that they could help me.
In truth, I was relieved, because potentially sleeping for weeks on a floor in a room where the lights are always on, with 30 other people, was rather less attractive to me than the freedom I had enjoyed at Covent Garden, or around the victims of spice in Victoria. Of course, if I was ill or old, I would have been grateful for this space on the floor and the plan for housing that they would in time have made for me.
Apart from the state and the Mayor now seeming to take getting people off the street more seriously, the other big difference from 30 years ago is the number of foreign nationals. Some figures put this up at around 60pc, and this was certainly my experience. One evening at a soup kitchen on the Strand, there was a crowd of a couple of hundred people receiving food, shawls and new trainers. Volunteers comprise of: a church group from Windsor and Maidenhead, an African evangelical church, I think a congregation of Ahmadiyya Muslims, and a Sikh group. As I wondered round, I don’t remember hearing any English – but east European languages, Arabic, and Italian.
You cannot just lump people together and talk about “the homeless”. People are homeless for many reasons: illness, personality disorder, loneliness, addiction, family breakdown, lack of roots in a new country, men of the road (yes, rough sleepers are overwhelmingly male), immediate crisis, cost of housing, low paid work, the time of year – and more. Indeed, by lumping all these different groups together and providing services to all of them, it obscures those in the direst need. I did not manage to find out how easily or otherwise a street homeless addict can access treatment services when they are ready to do so.
The telegraph uk