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‘The invisible scourge, I think that’s what they call us’: There are more homeless people than ever in London

Rough sleepers can be all but forgotten in the scorching summer heat. Zoe Ettinger hears from visitors to a homeless charity in the capital, where the number of people on the streets has risen sharply

Monday 29 July 2019 15:18 BST
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Record numbers of rough sleepers in London and beyond have been called a national disgrace by mayor Sadiq Khan
Record numbers of rough sleepers in London and beyond have been called a national disgrace by mayor Sadiq Khan (EPA-EFE)

You don’t read much about homeless people in summertime. However, this past week, with temperatures reaching a scorching 40 degrees, cities across Europe have had to take action to help those on the streets. Paris, for example, has opened up 50 air-conditioned spaces to the public, along with having plentiful drinking water fountains and actual fountains for cooling off throughout the city.

Resources like these are just as crucial for the homeless in the summer as warm spaces are during the winter months. Homeless people are most often mentioned during Christmastime, appealing to widespread charitable sentiment. However, they face the same issues year-round, and their numbers are growing.

New data from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (Chain) showed that 8,855 people slept rough in London last year, a rise of nearly a fifth in just 12 months.

To explore the issue of rising rates of rough sleeping, we’ve interviewed four homeless individuals. Here, they share their stories and explain how they survive on the streets.

“The homeless only exist during Christmas; the invisible scourge, I think that’s what they call us,” Zyron Hann says while slurping down a bowl of wheat cereal. Now aged 51, Hann has been homeless on and off for 25 years. For the last four years, he has been sleeping on the streets. He can’t be bothered with a system that he believes doesn’t care about him. “When I go to the hospital, they kick me out because they think I’m only there for a bed. I was on crutches for a couple of years and each time they kicked me out,” he says. Though it seems he’s chosen this life, Hann alludes to past mental health issues, and a revolving door of caseworkers, making the idea of a choice seem more than doubtful.

Zyron Hann: ‘The homeless only exist during Christmas’ (Zoe Ettinger)

The Whitechapel Mission, where I meet Hann, has been serving the homeless and marginalised for the past 143 years. It provides hot meals, clothing, career services and a general meeting place. For the past seven years, rough sleeping in England has continued to climb. Data from Chain reveals that there are 2,000 more people on the streets of London than five years ago in 2014. Charities like the Whitechapel Mission are the David against Goliath in the fight to help homeless people.

I sit down first with Lisa to learn more about living on the streets. She has stayed the maximum length of time at her current shelter, and has been referred here for help finding a new one. She came to England from Trinidad and Tobago seven years ago, escaping a violent marriage and looking for a better life: “When I was growing up they taught us that we need to go to America or the UK for opportunity,” she says. “It is ingrained in us since preschool: that to be someone you have to travel.”

When Lisa arrived in England, however, there were no opportunities for her. She had no papers allowing her to work or enrol in education. “I just want a chance,” she says. “I have a lot to give back. I’m a writer, I write poetry, short films, and I just started a course because I want to leave a legacy for my kids.” Tears begin to stream down her cheeks. She says going home would be giving up, and that she has to stay here so her children will know that she succeeded, even if it means continuing to struggle from shelter to shelter, hoping that the situation will change and allow her to gain legal status.

Also at the mission today is Elroy Roban, who has been sleeping rough for the past four months. “I have to be out cold to get to sleep, and when I do, things go missing. Someone took my trainers right off my feet a few days ago,” he says. He suffers from alcohol addiction, and was kicked out of his previous accommodation for getting in a fight with one of the staff. “I made my bed and I guess I have to lie in it, but it’s not for me,” he says. It is his first time living on the streets.

Broadway Market, Hackney: 5,529 people slept rough for the first time in the capital last year (AFP/Getty)

After speaking with Elroy, I meet Martha. Before she says a word, she lifts up her shirt and exposes her breasts. She shows Sonia Scott, the life skills coordinator, and I the incredibly tiny scar she has in her armpits where a doctor in Thailand inserted breast implants. “It was a gift from my dad for the last time I got clean. It cost £1,000,” she says.

I ask Martha when she last used drugs, and she answers without hesitation, and in an eerily cheery tone: “About 10 minutes ago.” This time it’s crack. She is shaking uncontrollably as we speak, and can’t sit down for more than a few seconds. Though she isn’t technically homeless, having a council flat with bills paid by her parents, her addiction causes her to spend days on the streets, begging on trains to save for her next hit.

Martha, whose face is covered in self-inflicted open wounds and scars, describes herself as “one of the lucky ones” because her family is still in the picture. She’s been taking drugs for nearly 18 years, and the effects are obvious: her body is thin and wiry and her hair dishevelled. Crack, she says, is “pointless”, as she knows it doesn’t have the devastating physical withdrawal of heroin. “That’s what makes it so hard, it’s all in your head,” she says.

One thing I ask each interviewee is: “What is something that people don’t understand about homelessness?” They have varied responses, but one sentiment is constant: that homelessness can happen to anyone. Some look at homeless people as if they’re subhuman, but the fact is many of them have just been particularly unlucky.

Some names have been changed.

For more information about the Whitechapel Mission visit their website. If you wish to make a donation, please click here

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