These are the worst scenes of street destitution we have seen for 30 years, so let's keep quiet about it
What a truly complex job outreach work with rough sleepers is nowadays. Occasionally I attend meetings of our street teams and listen with amazement at the intricacies of the issues they painstakingly seek to unravel. Frequently these involve complex immigration matters. I recently asked an outreach colleague what single thing would help her most in her work. She unhesitatingly responded, ‘rapid access to decent immigration advice’.
The profile of rough sleeping in Britain changed profoundly following the accession of eight central and eastern European countries to the European Union (EU) in 2004, a further two following in 2007. In London in 2005-6, central and eastern Europeans comprised just 6% of the rough sleeping population. The latest statistics (2012-13) show that this figure has risen to 28%. In total, 1772 different individuals from central and eastern Europe slept rough in London over the year. Now 53% of London’s rough sleeping population are non-UK nationals. In some parts of the country this figure is even higher. This information can be found in the annual CHAIN report on rough sleeping published last month which, for the first time, also references immigration data. Apart from EU migrants, other categories include 'indefinite leave to remain' (283), 'asylum seeker' (32), 'limited leave to remain' (67) and 'overstayer' (76). Struggling, and failing, to grasp the meaning of these baffling definitions, I began to comprehend why my colleague selected immigration advice as her top request.
There has been a flurry of recent headlines concerning rough sleeping and immigration. Last month the police removed 68 people, mostly Romanian nationals, from a site in north London, working closely with the Romanian embassy, the local authority and outreach services. Many of those at the site returned voluntarily to their country. The site was squalid and insanitary. Plainly, the occupants had been living in conditions so atrocious a shanty town would seem palatial in comparison.
There are numerous sites of this type in towns, cities and rural areas around the country, some hidden, others grimly exposed and blighting local neighbourhoods. Yet this horrifying phenomenon of rough sleeping amongst predominantly non-UK nationals remains an issue that, with honourable exceptions, homelessness organisations remain reluctant to highlight, less still debate.
The publicity accompanying the release of the latest rough sleeping figures for London illustrates this. Reports focused determinedly on the overall increase in numbers sleeping rough, speculation that welfare benefit changes are bringing more people onto the street, youth homelessness and the need for more affordable housing. Most of this familiar list could have been effortlessly compiled as a response at any point in the last thirty years, even during that period of pre-recession prosperity that we now view as a golden age.
Tackling migrant homelessness and working with people with complex immigration issues is a high risk business. As the statistics indicate, it involves engaging with some people who are living in this country illegally. Any serious debate on the subject runs the risk of being manipulated by dubious pressure groups and populist politicians. Yet the homelessness sector, by behaving as if it hopes to side-step debating these matters, is failing to shine a light on a developing humanitarian disaster as people are consigned to live in deplorable conditions, the worst witnessed for a generation and certainly comparable to the monstrous ‘cardboard cities’ of the 1980s.
In the process, we are in danger of becoming detached from the realities facing out street teams and ignoring the impact that mass occupation of derelict buildings, spaces under bridges and wasteland is having on communities. For colleagues working on the street with rough sleepers the key working relationships are often with the police and the fire service, the latter naturally horrified by the extreme fire risk that is a consistent feature of these occupied sites. Yet the organisers of conferences I attend on tackling rough sleeping rarely invite these key partners and, should the need for an enforcement response to assertively address anti-social behaviour and illegal activities carried out by people living on the street be mooted, it is viewed as decidedly bad form.
And too many bad things happen for us to prevaricate. On a bleak November evening last year in south London, three Polish rough sleepers were met huddled beneath a crudely built structure draped with plastic sheeting. The two men and one woman were inebriated but the woman decided to accept the offer of a place at the local assessment centre. Walking towards the outreach van, she had a late change of mind and turned back to her two compatriots. Later that evening a fire started at the encampment and grew to become a furnace. Tragically, all three perished in the fire.
For the majority of people from Europe and elsewhere seeking work in this country the experience is positive. For the small minority who do find themselves destitute, we are able to convince most that a planned return home is their best option. Yet there remains an intransigent group with little chance of employment who for months, even years, take the ostensibly easy option of living on the street or in derelict buildings surviving on food handouts, drifting aimlessly, sadly unchallenged by some of the support staff they meet within homelessness services.
We observe their living situation becoming increasingly squalid and their health and self-worth collapsing. But doesn’t our lack of outrage and reticence to apply pressure on people to face reality and either achieve self-sufficiency through employment or return home with support tacitly encourage a belief that there is this third way – the path of perilous inertia?
And so, as the scenes of squalor we witness become an increasingly familiar part of our working lives, we settle into that untroubled state of being comfortably numb.
A shorter version of this blog was published in Inside Housing on 26th July 2013