The Polish dream turns sour

When Thomas and Zibi came to Britain, jobs were easy to come by. Now they are sleeping in a tent, victims of a recession that has destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of migrant workers. Jonathan Brown reports.
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Thomas and his brother Zibi were trying to keep themselves warm at their riverbank home yesterday by huddling round a small, smoky fire built from green sticks. A pot of water bubbled away and all around the trees and undergrowth, which only partially concealed their makeshift shelters from curious passers-by, were festooned with clothes and plastic bags.

Just visible in the distance on the hill above was the towering Gothic edifice of Lincoln Cathedral. Beside them, flowed the river Witham as it meandered steadily eastwards preparing to pass through lush Lincolnshire farmland on its way to the Wash. In happier times, this might make a pleasant spot to pitch a tent, but not for these two brothers from Lublin in south-east Poland. They came to Britain to make better lives for themselves but are now stranded, penniless and without work, unable even to afford to make the journey to London or Manchester to seek a loan from the Polish embassy to get home.

Once they finally get there, said 28-year-old Thomas who, until he lost all his papers in a burglary in November, was earning £17,000 a year as a lathe operator producing pistons for tractors, neither will be coming back. They have been forced to spend one of the harshest British winters in years living in the open air.

"This is terrible for us," said Thomas yesterday. "We just do what we can to survive. I could never have imagined I would end up living like this when I was in Poland. England is a rich country; you would never believe that people live like this here." He says life is particularly hard for his brother Zibi, 45, a builder, who has two children back in Poland.

The brothers are among some 30 Poles and other eastern Europeans now living rough on the streets of this attractive cathedral city. Many of the others choose to drink and take drugs, sleeping in doorways and under bridges in the city centre, but Thomas and Zibi prefer to keep to themselves here on the river bank. Until a recent flood engulfed their tents, smearing their possessions with sewage and mud, there were six people living in this tiny shanty town. But although their numbers have dwindled here, the brothers, who declined to give their surname or be photographed for fear of bringing shame on their families back home, are part of a larger and potentially worsening problem.

Jan Mokrzycki, of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, believes that as many as 1,500 Poles are now sleeping rough on the streets of the UK. That figure has grown steadily since the credit crunch started to bite in the autumn. Since then, the number of Polish migrant workers has slumped from an estimated peak of one million to just 600,000, and the flow of new arrivals has slowed to a trickle as, according to Mr Mokrzycki, young men and women realise "the streets of Britain are not paved with gold".

He went on: "People are losing work and if they haven't been here for a year they are not entitled to any benefits so they end up on the streets. There are some cases where people have come here on false promises, spending everything they have, and then finding the work they were told was waiting for them just doesn't exist."

For the two brothers it is little consolation that there is work back home where there are thousands of jobs building the infrastructure for the forthcoming Euro 2012 football championships, which Poland is hosting jointly with Ukraine. They are forced to rely on handouts from local people.

Charlotte McHugh of the Priory Centre, a local welfare charity, said it had felt compelled to act after learning of the brothers' plight in the local newspaper. "We read about these people with no money and no food and we were very concerned," she said. "You don't think there are people on your doorstep living in tents with no money. It's a sight you think you would see on television from another country."

The national homeless charity Crisis said the voluntary sector was often the only option for many migrants, and urged the Government to come to the aid of people left out in the cold. Leslie Morphy, its chief executive, said: "People come to the UK in search of work, better living conditions and quality of life. The reality is often very different and for many the only option is to sleep rough. Government must take a lead to provide the right advice and assistance. All too often, organisations like Crisis are left picking up the pieces."

Despite some fears that Poles living in Britain could be targeted, as unemployment soars towards the three million mark, Thomas said he had detected little overt antipathy towards him and his fellow rough sleepers. "Yes, some people have not been friendly but only a small percentage," he said. "I like it here. It was not English people who stole my papers, it was Lithuanian people. When you have a job it is easy here, an easy life. Now we are just waiting. We can live like this a long time but I don't want to."

The brothers wash and shave in public toilets and visit the home of a friend to shower. Four times a week, they receive food parcels and can visit a GP. They scavenge for old broken chairs, boxes anything they can find in the city centre and turn to good use. They do their best to remain optimistic. "Believe me the time goes very fast," Thomas said. "It is only when you get depressed that things get really bad."