No way back
Rough sleeping in England has risen 23 per cent with more than half of those on London’s streets non-UK nationals who come here looking for work but instead find destitution. Rhiannon Bury reports on the work being done to help them return home.
The primary emotion registering on Anjelika’s tired face is relief. When Inside Housing meets the 40-year-old who does not wish to reveal her last name, she is just hours away from boarding a flight to Bratislava and home. She’s escaping a grim life on the streets of London after a move to the capital last November to find work went terribly wrong. It is only the work of a homelessness charity that has enabled her to return home at all.
‘When I arrived in England I stayed with my friends,’ she explains through her interpreter as she eyes up the other customers in a coffee shop outside Euston Station. ‘When I left Slovakia they promised they would find me a job.’
But, like so many others before her, the job never materialised and the friends’ hospitality soon turned sour. Anjelika found herself at Victoria train station, with little more than the clothes on her back and no way home.
‘I stayed there a couple of nights and someone brought me baguettes to eat,’ she says. ‘But I didn’t sleep - I was too scared. I really thought I might get killed. It was cold and dark, and there were not very nice people around - drunk people and people walking by all the time.’
Sadly, Anjelika’s experience as a foreign national sleeping rough is in no way unique. Official figures announced last Thursday by the Communities and Local Government department show that rough sleeping in England is up 23 per cent to 2,181 in the third quarter when compared with last year.
Of the 3,607 people sleeping rough in London during the 2010/11 financial year, 52 per cent were non-UK nationals.
So what is being done to tackle this growing problem? And how are people like Anjelika being helped to return home?
Reacting to last week’s homelessness figures, housing minister Grant Shapps has waded in with a warning. ‘Non-UK residents now account for over half the rough sleepers in our capital, so anyone heading here with tales of Dick Whittington in their head needs to realise that the streets of London and our other cities aren’t paved with gold.
‘Those arriving from beyond our shores to try to carve out a future in England should come with a thought-through plan to avoid the risk of sleeping on the streets.’
Mr Shapps has voiced his support for a new campaign by The Passage, a rough sleepers’ day centre in Westminster, to help raise awareness in eastern Europe of the realities of moving to the UK to look for work.
The Before You Go campaign, which launched last week, aims to reach people using leaflets and a free phone advice line before they leave for British shores to ensure they have appropriate support in place.
It was The Passage that rescued Anjelika. Cold and hungry, she was picked up by staff after three nights on the streets. The centre receives around 200 people each day, providing breakfast and lunch and putting people in touch with housing and other services. It received around £1.6 million of public funding this year.
Anjelika sips from a paper coffee cup. Huddled in her hoodie and jeans she glances at her interpreter for reassurance.
Source: Tim Foster
‘I told [the staff] I wanted to go home,’ she says. ‘I’d had enough and I didn’t want to be in London anymore, away from my friends and my family.’ But two months in London had exhausted every penny of her meagre savings and she had no hope of purchasing a plane ticket home.
The Passage referred Anjelika to homelessness charity Thames Reach which in January 2009 launched its reconnection service aimed at repatriating vulnerable central and Eastern European nationals sleeping rough on London’s streets who want to return to their home countries.
Anjelika’s is not an uncommon story, says Tom Vincent, area manager for the London reconnection service and outreach at Thames Reach.
‘On a basic level the job market has not been anything like some people expect it to be and individuals who would have got work under different circumstances and got on perfectly well just aren’t being able to find the jobs.’
This is unsurprising given the latest government figures put unemployment at a record 2.67 million (8.4 per cent) in the UK - the highest level for 16 years.
Often, Mr Vincent explains, people the reconnection team works with have additional problems, like substance or alcohol misuse, that mean they need extra support.
The problem has become so widespread - the charity has helped repatriate 1,500 people in the last 18 months - that Thames Reach, along with social care charity CRI, is holding a reconnections conference on 16 April in London for local authorities that want information on working with EU nationals who are sleeping rough.
‘We have calls all the time from other cities that want information about how to help people go home,’ Mr Vincent says.
The reconnection team receives £200,000 each year from the Greater London Authority to get homeless foreign nationals back on home soil. It says the scheme has saved the taxpayer more than £2 million in health and emergency services costs.
As Inside Housing revealed in January, Thames Reach has enlisted the help of the GLA, the CLG and eastern European embassies to provide paper work, funding and access to mental health services and job agencies for homeless people wishing to return to their home country.
The embassies in turn have begun contacting business people from their countries who have settled in London to help with the scheme, providing translation services or financial support for plane tickets. Some are even considering fundraising events to raise money for rough sleepers.
Thames Reach stepped in for Anjelika, buying her a £100 plane ticket, kitting her out in warm, dry clothing and housing her in Olallo House, a hostel near Euston Station, until her departure on 20 January.
With the Slovakian embassy’s help, staff put Anjelika in touch with the Slovakian equivalent of a job centre to improve her chances of finding work once she gets home. She seems to be genuinely pleased to be leaving the UK.
‘If I’d found a job here I’d have stayed,’ she says revealing not only disappointment but embarrassment at her situation. ‘I was told I would get work,’ she says, over and over.
Thames Reach’s Mr Vincent says in some cases, people pay to come to the UK on the promise of a job butwhen they arrive they find they have been tricked or that jobs are hard to come by. ‘People may start drinking to cope with the situation, or because of people they are mixing with, and then they are really in need of support,’ he explains.
‘The embassies need to feed the message back home that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. People come over here without the language skills, and without understanding the requirements to work.’
Sergiusz Wolski, third secretary at the Polish Embassy in London, says he is pleased that increasing attention is being given to the problem. ‘Every day we are dealing with people who come here without preparations, people who don’t speak English, who come here without a job. It’s very important that we tell people what they can expect in England and how they should be preparing themselves,’ he says.
‘We are afraid that foreign people will treat this as something against them coming to Britain, but that’s not true, it’s just not everyone can find a job or accommodation here.’
Anjelika is visibly overwhelmed by the help she has received from the staff at Thames Reach. She is also full of praise for the people who pulled her off the street on that January night. ‘People were so nice and helpful,’ she says. ‘It was a horrible time for me.
‘I’m happy to be going home because in Slovakia at least I have somewhere to sleep.’
With that, she hurries off to pack for her flight. In 12 hours’ time she’ll be back where she started three months ago. But for thousands of other non-UK nationals there is no ticket home and, for now, no way to avoid another night on the streets.