Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Traffickers posing as volunteers at soup kitchens to coerce homeless people into forced labour, finds report

Hundreds of people sleeping rough are being lured into exploitative work as abusers pose as volunteers at train stations, parks and shelters, research suggests

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 28 June 2019 08:46 BST
Exploiters targeting homeless people at various locations, with the most common people public areas such as train stations, parks and on the street, as well as homeless shelters, according to research by charity Unseen
Exploiters targeting homeless people at various locations, with the most common people public areas such as train stations, parks and on the street, as well as homeless shelters, according to research by charity Unseen (National Crime Agency)

Traffickers are posing as volunteers at soup kitchens and night shelters in order to coerce homeless people into forced labour and sexual exploitation, new research shows.

A report by charity Unseen reveals hundreds of rough sleepers are being reported as suspected modern slavery victims, with 7 per cent of all cases reported to the charity’s helpline between October 2016 and April 2019 – amounting to 276 – involving a homeless victim.

Exploiters target homeless people at various locations such as train stations, parks, the street, as well as shelters, according to the findings.

Recruitment was also reported to occur in workplaces and on the internet, including through social media, while a foster home and a places of worship were also recorded as locations targeted by traffickers.

Homeless charities said they had seen numerous cases of abusers entering food kitchens or even posing as rough sleepers in order to recruit vulnerable people into exploitative work.

Andrew Smith, chief executive of Hull Homeless and chair of Humber Modern Slavery Partnership, told of homeless men who had been lured by traffickers posing as rough sleepers to take cash-in-hand work, which was ultimately slave labour, and cases where young women living in hostels had been similarly tricked into exploitative sex work.

Mr Smith said: “We’ve noticed over last few years white vans pulling up outside soup kitchens and hostels. It beggars belief. They’ll pull up and they’ll chat to people. Sometimes they’ll pretend they’re homeless themselves; sometimes they’ll come to donate food and then while they’re there they’ll offer people cash-in-hand labouring work.

“Then you do get the more extreme cases where people will volunteer for small community groups to get access to vulnerable people. We know people have posed as homeless themselves even to the point of getting a room in a shelter or hostel.

“They will say one day ‘a guy has said there’s some work going labouring, do you want to come’. And they will take them there and then vanish. It’s really unscrupulous. There’s almost no fear in doing it.”

In one case, Tomec*, a homeless man from Poland who would attend a soup kitchen most nights of the week, suddenly disappeared. Homeless Hull had noticed that a white van had been coming and going from the soup kitchen, but they did not know where he had gone.

It emerged three months later that Tomec had been taken to another part of the country and forced to live in a caravan and carry out manual labour on a recycling waste site. With no electricity and no running water, he had had to wash in an animal trough outside.

Homeless figures released: more than 4,500 sleeping rough on England’s streets

Mr Smith said: “He was off site in the middle of nowhere with no idea where he was. They took all his documents off him and regularly threatened him. He managed to make his way back to Hull after three months. He was quite angry that he’d gotten in to that situation.”

In another case, David*, a homeless British man in his forties, who had been staying in a Hull-based hostel, was sent contact details for a travelling carnival. He got in touch with them through Facebook and was picked him up from his accommodation.

Mr Smith said: “He lived on site at this carnival. He had everything taken off him. And it was a case of we’re going to pay you £120 a week, but then when he got there they took £50 off for his food, £60 for his accommodation and left him with £10 a week – which they then took off him for giving him a lift.

The sexual exploitation was “harder to pin down”, but that the charity knew of cases where women living in sheltered housing or hostels, normally with substance misuse issues, had been tricked into taking up sex work by women posing as homeless but who are embedded in criminal gangs.

Unseen said that where homelessness was a factor prior to exploitation, the highest additional vulnerabilities were poverty, substance abuse, immigration status and language barriers.

Labour exploitation was the most common form of exploitation, and English the most common victim nationality, according to the report.

Rough sleeping in England has meanwhile surged by 165 per cent in the past eight years, with 4,677 people recorded to have been sleeping rough last year.

The charity said the report’s findings emphasised the need for local authorities, homeless charities and other frontline services to be aware of the risks and signs of modern slavery.

Rachel Harper, manager of Unseen’s modern slavery helpline, said: “We know that recruitment tactics include targeting varied vulnerabilities such as poverty, substance dependencies and language barriers.

“The helpline’s data on reported cases of modern slavery and homelessness can be used to better inform prevention efforts and responses to exploitation. This report also demonstrates why awareness and collaboration with homeless charities, members of the public and housing agencies is crucial.”

A government spokesperson said: “Modern slavery is an abhorrent crime which has a devastating impact on the lives of its victims. We are committed to eradicating modern slavery in all its forms and supporting victims into accommodation where necessary, where they can rebuild their lives.

“Our world-leading Modern Slavery Act has led to thousands of victims being protected and hundreds of convictions. We are constantly looking to improve the support on offer to victims of modern slavery.”

* Names have been changed

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in