Out of sight…
First Published 29 September 2015
Fernando moves from one bin shed to another, using homeless day centres wherever possible during the hours they are open. With no ID and a developing drink problem he no longer works in restaurants and is descending into depression and alcoholism. He is an EU citizen and should be eligible for assistance. But the outreach services can’t keep up with him and his needs are not being met.
Outreach teams have also encountered Peter, a refused asylum seeker, in bin sheds across London’s council estates. Never found in the same location twice, he knows it is best to keep moving just in case the authorities try to send him back to his war-torn homeland. He could complain, and would probably win an appeal against the initial rejection of his asylum claim -but now he is depressed and on the run. It would be hard to mount a serious campaign in support of his claim from behind the bins at the bottom of a rubbish chute of a tower block.
Official street counts of rough sleepers are low. In June last year, Manchester recorded just seven, Hammersmith and Fulham six and Islington only four!
The government is being urged to end street homelessness by 2012. But where have all the homeless people gone? They used to be in doorways, but now are out of sight -swept off the streets like litter, and ending up with the rubbish in bin sheds on the estates.
Tower Hamlets may have only counted two or three rough sleepers on the streets, but the crowds arriving for breakfast at the doors of the borough’s homeless projects, such as the Whitechapel Mission or the Dellow Centre, have clearly been sleeping out. When questioned about where they are sleeping they are evasive. Part of it is pride -it’s not great to admit to sleeping behind rubbish bins. But often it is because they know they won’t get help from the authorities and once their hiding places are discovered they will have to move on.
George, a former outreach worker, had mixed feelings about providing outreach services to these people. ‘For some of them their discovery by the outreach services was the worst thing that could happen to them,’ he says. ‘Almost invariably after we found them they would move on and we wouldn’t see them again.’
Eleven years after the government set up the social exclusion unit and seriously addressed the issue of rough sleeping, it is ironic that we now have an even more excluded section of the population which has been driven off the streets by some of the very initiatives set up to help them. We don’t even know how many rough sleepers there are as the majority are now hiding.
The issues they are dealing with are the same as ever -mental health difficulties, substance misuse, unclear immigration status, past indiscretions -but they are increasingly denied statutory support. They include a number of Eastern European migrant workers, particularly those who only managed to find cash-in-hand work and didn’t have the opportunity to acquire benefit entitlements. Even UK citizens who leave their home areas can find themselves ineligible for housing or support. They may have left as a result of depression or family breakdown, but if they don’t have a local connection to the areas they have arrived in they will be ‘encouraged’ to ‘return home’. And in the meantime, the residents of the bin sheds can suffer serious health problems, both physically and mentally.
Living in bin sheds also has a peculiar legal position. As a space it falls somewhere between the private and the public. Despite the fact that many outreach services refuse to go into what is essentially private property, there is no security and those living in these places can get moved on at any time.
Some local authorities, such as Camden in London, organise joint shifts with housing staff, police and outreach services to find and assess those sleeping on the estates. But most housing managers in other areas are only vaguely aware of this as an issue. Caretakers or estate cleaners typically turn a blind eye to the situation as they are unsure what to do or who to report it to. And many residents are completely unaware that people might be living in their bin sheds.
In the words of Iggy Pop -‘Down where your paint is cracking, look down your back stairs buddy, somebody’s living there and, he don’t really feel the weather, and he don’t share your pleasures.’