London: The city of broken dreams

When the Czech Republic joined the EU, Tomasz headed for Britain. He now sleeps rough, one of an army of eastern Europeans who found nothing but despair on London's streets.

Jerome Taylor
Saturday 19 September 2009 00:00 BST

It is 6.30 in the morning on a littered side street opposite London's Borough Market after what has been an unseasonably cold night. As early commuters slowly begin to filter down from London Bridge station towards their offices along the Thames, Tomasz Piotr is hoping to greet them with music.

Bleary eyed from a night of heavy drinking on the streets of south London, he fumbles around in his pocket to pull out a few strands of stray rolling tobacco and a battered harmonica. "This is how I make money," he says with a grin before launching into a passable rendition of "Yankee Doodle". Impromptu concert over, his next trick is to proudly list how to greet people in French, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and German.

Mr Piotr, a Czech national from Prague who came to Britain six years ago, is one of hundreds of eastern Europeans sleeping rough in the capital every night.

Their presence is a result both of the European Union's expansion in 2004, which brought millions of migrants into Britain, and of the economic meltdown, which has left them without jobs or housing. Most of those who lost their livelihoods have gone home – but others have nothing to go back to and prefer sleeping rough on the streets of Britain to sleeping rough in eastern Europe.

Their presence threatens to undermine the government's aim to rid the country of rough sleeping. When New Labour came to power in 1997 it promised to provide housing for the estimated 2,000 rough sleepers who crashed outdoors each night and were virtually ignored during the Thatcher years. Veteran street sleepers who had camped rough for years were persuaded into social housing and millions of pounds were piled into hostels in a drive to get new arrivals quickly off the streets, where the average age of death remains a terrifying 42 years.

The effect has been dramatic – gone are the days when the underpasses on London's South Bank were crawling with the homeless and needy. Now the Government claims that the number of people sleeping rough on any one night in Britain is down to 700 – a third of whom sleep out in the capital. Last year Housing minister Margaret Beckett confidently announced that rough sleeping would be abolished from the capital in time for the 2012 Olympics.

But while British nationals who sleep rough can usually find hostel accommodation and financial aid if they want it, the country's eastern European rough sleepers are rarely entitled to such benefits. Contrary to far-right propaganda, A10 workers (the term used to describe nationals from the 10 EU accession countries) are only entitled to benefits, income and housing support if they registered on arrival in Britain and have worked solidly for 12 months. Some forget to register, others never knew they had to and a significant proportion have been cleverly scammed by unscrupulous agencies in their homelands who promise them work and then leave them stranded on arrival in Britain. A few, charity workers will admit, simply come to Britain because it is easier to be homeless here than in their homelands, especially during winter.

But like the hidden armies of unsuccessful asylum-seekers who also have no recourse to public funding, many A10 homeless are now some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in Britain.

A 10-minute walk from Mr Piotr's patch is the Manna Centre, which for more than two decades has opened its doors to south London's hungry. Each morning a queue of rough sleepers wait patiently to be let through to the soup kitchen, which reverberates with eastern European languages and boasts numerous signs translated into Polish.

According to Paddy Boyle, who runs the centre, at least 40 per cent of attendees are now from the accession countries, up from an average of 25-30 per cent before the recession.

"In people's minds the traditional perception of a rough sleeper is someone without access to cash or benefits, which is not really true for British people," he says. "We can usually get them income support and into a hostel pretty quickly. But most of the eastern Europeans aren't entitled to benefits – and most hostels won't even entertain the idea of taking them because they can't claim the rent back off the Government."

Mr Boyle reckons only two of the 20 or more hostels in the capital will even take A10 rough sleepers.

For the inner-city London boroughs, having such a large number of eastern Europeans on their streets poses particular problems. Natty St Louis is the rough sleeper street population co-ordinator for Southwark Council, which has just begun looking for a full-time A10 employee who can accompany him and the outreach team from St Mungo's, London's largest homeless hostel, to wake up the rough sleepers each morning and see how they can help.

Mr St Louis has been working with south London's homeless for more than 20 years and knows the streets like the back of his hand. Taking a walk with him and Eammon Edgerton, from St Mungo's, is to journey into a hidden parallel world, far away from the everyday minutiae of ordinary Londoners, where every quiet shelter tucked away in a sidestreet, every warm vent could be someone's home. During their last "hotspot count", 10 of the 12 rough sleepers they encountered were from abroad.

"I must stress that the vast majority of eastern Europeans have integrated fantastically and work amazingly hard in the area," says Mr St Louis. "But with any large migration of people there will always be those who fall through the cracks and that poses specific problems that our outreach team have to overcome."

But getting the eastern Europeans off the streets and into accommodation can be incredibly difficult. "You have to use every string in your bow," says Mr Edgerton. "But we're not here to watch people die, so we have to do all we can. It's a mixture of compassion and enforcement."

There are now two organisations in the capital that help to repatriate those who want to return home, but new arrivals keep turning up.

Back at the Manna Centre, Jacek Kaczorowski is dolling out slices of toast and steaming mugs of sugary tea to the morning's arrivals. The 41-year-old Pole had been working legally in Britain long before his country's accession into the EU under the various schemes that allowed Poles in on a temporary basis. When his marriage broke up he hit the bottle and ended up jobless and on the streets.

"Once 2004 came along [the year eight eastern European countries were allowed into the EU] the hostels just stopped taking eastern Europeans," he said. "It's not too difficult to find a bed but most places don't open their doors to A10 members."

Mr Kaczorowski has since quit drinking, is back in accommodation and works full-time. But as a former rough sleeper he has first-hand experience of how difficult it can be for fellow eastern Europeans to get off the street. "Other than a lack of accommodation the biggest problem is alcohol," he says. There is little drug abuse amongst migrant rough sleepers, he explains, but alcoholism is all too common. "I would say about 50 per cent of the people who come in here have a drinking problem."

Others are entirely innocent victims of highly knowledgeable rip-off merchants, both domestic and foreign. In a cramped office at the front of the centre Milena Koczaska, 34, is sorting through reams of paperwork brought to her by Lech Novark, a 59-year-old Pole who was homeless for much of the winter and has just managed to find temporary shelter.

Each day Ms Koczaska sees up to 10 eastern Europeans and helps them navigate the bureaucratic minefields surrounding what state support they are – and in most instances are not – entitled to. She used to work two days a week but now works full-time.

Mr Novark came from the Polish city of Lodz nine years ago and until last November had worked as a driver, paying his taxes each month and sending what he could back to his wife and two grown-up children. A back injury forced him out of work in October, and when he went to sign on for income support he was told he wasn't entitled to it because he had already been claiming child support for years.

"This is a scam that I see all the time now," says Ms Koczaska. "We often find that criminal agencies steal a worker's identity, set up a bank account in their name and then fraudulently claim a whole load of benefits that the immigrant will never see. They only find out about it when they make contact with the authorities, who are simply too busy to chase up all the fraudulent claims."

Mr Novark believes his identity was stolen by people he describes as "Polish Gypsies", whom he spent a year lodging with in the Bradford area many years back. It took him and Ms Koczaska more than eight months to persuade the Inland Revenue that he was a bona fide tax payer and entitled to income support. A hostel has taken him in pro bono until he obtains his support but he worries they may lose patience.

"There are still some details to sort out," says Mr Novark. "It scares me because if I don't get help soon I might end up back on the streets."

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