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Streets of London hit by rise in homeless sleeping rough

An alarming increase in street homelessness in London can be traced back to the financial crisis which led to cuts in those services that are trying to help those in need. Abigail Frymann Rouch reports from London.

London's Oxford Street bustles with a mix of commuters and shoppers at the end of a long, humid day. Chinese schoolchildren huddle on one side of the road, German teenagers stride past on the other, and a veiled woman wrestles a buggy across a side road. But not everyone is moving. 

Meters away on the pavement sits naturalized French-born Serge Arcé, 53, and his dog Malo. He ended up sleeping on the streets nine months ago after losing his job as a pastry chef. His landlord decided to sell the property he was renting. When he approached his local authority for help, "the council said there were 10,000 people on a list for housing."

Read more: Homeless in Germany given the boot

Meanwhile Chris,* 44, a printer, sits opposite Trafalgar Square. He has a space at a hostel - one of the few nearby that haven't closed - that costs him £6 (around 7 euros) a night, but he has to leave by 10 every morning. His relationship broke down, he turned to drink and drugs and he regrets his "stupidity." He takes medication for his former drug use, but has all but lost the use of one of his feet. He wishes there were a comprehensive system that could help him back into work. "The only way out of any form of poverty is through paid employment [but] if you're in a hostel paid for by housing benefit and you get a job, you're straight away homeless," he told DW.  

Man sitting on street

Chris has been struggling to make ends meet ever since he drifted into a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse

Sleeping rough

The homelessness database Chain counted a total of 8,108 people sleeping rough in London in 2016/17. Some sleep in parks, others in tents under bridges, some next to building sites: the issue has become more visible.

There's no one culprit behind the rise in street homelessness, says Caroline Bernard of Homeless Link, which represents 700 charities. "In London especially, it's people suddenly leaving their accommodation because their landlord asks them to," she told DW. The government's austerity program, post-financial crisis, which cut services that address and prevent homelessness, is taking effect, "so people are in a more precarious position." 

Watch video 02:26

Life on the Streets

The Chain statistics also showed that in London, almost one-third of rough sleepers came from central or Eastern Europe, and only 47 percent were from Britain. "Most have come for work, but there's an issue around precarious offers of employment," Bernard added. The proportion - 30 percent - has fallen from 37 percent the previous year, possibly deterred by Brexit and its consequences.

Linda Maytum-Wilson, Chief Executive of Caritas Anchor House, a homeless center in Newham, east London, links the loss of private tenancies to landlords exploiting rising rents. Private rents in London and the south-east have risen by 30 percent since 2007, outstripping wages, and are likely to continue to do so. The government has admitted that the housing market is "broken."

Read more: Empty property in EU could house all of Europe's homeless - and more

Another factor is the "massive structural changes" in the labor market, says Professor Nicholas Pleace, Deputy Director of the Center for Housing Policy at the University of York: "the short-term economy, zero-hours contracts, more temporary work, work that's less well paid - in a context where affordable housing is decreasing."

Austerity bites

By the time someone ends up on the streets, they rarely need just a roof, and the longer they spend there, the harder and more expensive is to get them back into housing. Maytum-Wilson told DW of an "increased complexity of need" among rough sleepers, related to substance abuse, trouble with the law, and mental health issues. These issues are not new among rough sleepers, but she says services are harder to access and more poorly coordinated. "As austerity bites, it's harder and harder to integrate services, and the vulnerable fall into the gaps."

An initiative called No Second Night Out - first introduced by Boris Johnson, the mayor of London at the time, ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games - has alleviated what could have been a far greater crisis:  From January-March 2017, four out of five recorded new rough sleepers did not spend a second sleeping rough. Housing Justice, a charity, has been running 39 volunteer-run winter night shelters in places of worship in London since 2012. A new scheme, No First Night Out, is being trialed in east London and the City. "We agree, across the homelessness sector, that to do something meaningful about rough sleeping, you have to place a greater emphasis on prevention," says Housing Justice's director, Jacob Quagliozzi. 

Read more: London through the eyes of (formerly) homeless photographers

busy street in London

The streets of London are not paved with gold for everyone

Legislators, increasingly alarmed by the scale of the problem, backed the 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act, introduced as a private member's bill by Conservative MP Bob Blackman. It will oblige councils in England to provide earlier support to people at risk of becoming homeless and has earmarked £61 million (68 million euros) for them. "My aim is that no one is rough sleeping unless he or she makes the choice to," he told DW. The government is also piloting a Housing First scheme already used in Ireland, France, Denmark and Finland, which enables rough sleepers to get into housing without first going via hostels. The Department for Communities and Local Government say they are investing £550 million by 2020 to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, which includes £20 million to trial initiatives for those most in need.

"The £550 million isn't all new money and … it isn't that much," observes Professor Pleace, but "the positive thing about the Homelessness Reduction Act is that it shifts the emphasis toward prevention."

The test of this act's success, and that of the Housing First scheme, will be seen on the streets and under bridges in the coming months and years.

*declined to give his full name

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