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  • Writer's pictureJay Belmar Van Meerbeeck

Rough Sleeping: Stories from the street

“Come and take a selfie with the homeless.” Lee, who prefers to use an alias, vividly remembers the moment when he feared that the men standing just over his head while he slept on the ground would start kicking him.

A few weeks before I met Lee, he was one of the many homeless people on the streets of London. The steps of the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square was his home for many months. He is now in the process of rebuilding his life but has not forgotten his experience as a rough sleeper. His story is so lengthy, that battery on my recorder flat-lines and my coffee goes cold before I could finish.

Many other homeless people have traumatic experiences while trying to survive living on the streets. This can be damaging to the physical and emotional well-being of the person. A study done by the homeless charity Shelter revealed that many homeless people felt threatened not only by other members of the street community but also by the public.

As of 2014, the number of people sleeping rough in England increased. Figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) show that 2,744 people were found to be sleeping rough on any one night. In London, homelessness has doubled since 2010, with more than 7,600 sleeping rough in 2015. According to Crisis a charity for single homeless people in the UK, nine per cent of adults in England have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

Responding to the current state of homelessness in the UK, Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of Crisis said: “Homelessness in England is soaring, and today’s figures show a further 6 per cent rise between October and December of 2015.” She stated that many of the primary reasons for this are that “more and more people are struggling to pay their rent in an increasingly insecure market, while cuts to housing benefit and local council funding have left the safety net in tatters.”

Tonight I met Helen. She is in her sixth month of homelessness when I invited her for coffee and a chat. “I feel thankful but embarrassed that I’m now at a point where people have to help me,” she tells me. Until recently, the 37-year-old had only ever lived by herself or with a partner. She found herself homeless and living in parking lots inside her car with her two Mastiffs. She explained how life has changed over the months and how she has learned to survive.

In a 2016 Budget speech, Chancellor George Osborne responded to the sharply rising numbers of homeless in the UK. An investment of £115m, he said, would be committed towards the issue. “This government has always been committed to supporting the most vulnerable people in our society and while statutory homelessness remains less than half the 2003–04 peak, one person without a home is one too many,” he said.

However, many homelessness charities say that the Chancellor’s measure is only a short-term patch as opposed to a long-term solution. In response to the Chancellor’s statements, Campbell Robb, CEO of Shelter said: “To eradicate homelessness, the chancellor can’t simply deal with the symptoms and ignore the root causes. Every day at Shelter we see that homelessness — of any kind — is principally caused by decades of failure to build genuinely affordable homes and short-sighted welfare cuts. So, if he is really serious about fixing things, he needs to take major action on building homes that ordinary people can actually afford to rent or buy.”

Jamie Whittaker, the founder of Breakfast in Bed Street Life project, believes that one of the biggest problems facing people sleeping rough throughout the UK is poor mental health. Supported by a community of people, including a membership of 800 of their Facebook group and growing, the Breakfast in Bed project has been sustained without government funding.

According to Shelter, “the law as it stands in England means that single homeless people who go to their councils for help are often turned away to sleep on the streets — cold, desperate and forgotten. It’s a scandal that someone in this situation can be told they’re not vulnerable enough for help”.

Izy can relate. Due to overpriced accommodation and a shortage of council houses, she was not immune to the homeless bug either. “I had a shower every now and again… sometimes it’s really difficult to have access to facilities, so baby wipes were a Godsend,” she told me.

All is not dim when it comes to helping the homeless. City Harvest London is a non-profit organization that collects leftover food from restaurants and businesses in London. The items collected are then distributed to different charitable organisations that provide meals to the homeless.

After a back injury caused him to quit his job as a cameraman and a marital breakdown, Mark Harvey, Logistics Coordinator at City Harvest soon found himself on the streets. “It was cold outside. Sometimes I slept under bridges and would search the streets for food.”

The model used by City Harvest London has recently been made law in Paris, known for its fashion and gastronomy. French Food Waste Law dictates that supermarkets that are 4,305 square feet or more must donate unsold food to charities and food banks. The law makes France the first country in the world to ever do so. The legislation has inspired ‘green’ activists to call for its replication in the UK and across Europe.

Charities and projects such as City Harvest London and the smaller community funded projects such as Breakfast in Bed Street life project offer help to the homeless around the UK.

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