Heathrow Airport, terminals 1 and 2, 4am. It could have been any mid-week day, but as it happens it’s a Wednesday.
Hiding out at Heathrow
There’s the usual gaggle of people – weary tourists weathering the brunt of delayed or missed flights, cheery Scots in kilts, the police patrolling the near empty corridors and the waiting rooms full of slumped, sleeping bodies. And then there’s Heathrow Airport’s homeless community.
That’s a side we don’t often see. The airport authorities are keen to keep them out – they pose a security risk and the airport is private property, but they have become masters of avoiding detection.
After all, accommodation is free, it has lighting and heating, security and anonymity and plenty of food left behind by rushed tourists. Why would anyone want to move from what airport-based charity Heathrow Travel-Care says is a relative paradise for rough sleepers?
Airport owners BAA tried to tackle the problem, but things did not go to plan. The homeless people returned, just this time more cunning – disguised with empty luggage, duty free bags, and some even with passports.
Tell tale signs are often subtle, I’m told by an outreach worker who is here to signpost people on to accommodation and support, that although one man we meet has a passport and some money the giveaway is that he has no luggage, visa or ticket. He’s someone most would miss – after all the dishevelled look of many people forced to sleep on the plastic benches of terminal 2 at this time in the morning is the norm.
The truth is, the more you walk around the international hub, the more you realise the extent of the problem. Within hours we spot seven rough sleepers, and this, I’m told, is a very quiet night.
And it’s very mixed. I see the body of a middle-aged man and a young boy, drunk and slumped on the cold floor in full public view. They can barely speak and with a foot swollen with gout, he can barely stand either.
I meet a businessman from India whose mango import/export business failed. When I ask him why he’s here, he just answers: ‘It’s been a hard life.’ There’s a man who lived in west London’s Southall and tells me he was a factory worker for years before losing his job – and then his house. And then there’s the MA student whose financial problems paying course fees leaves him sleeping on park benches in summer and the airport’s bus shelter by autumn.
Many people will recognise something of themselves or others in these people. People who have had bad luck, poor finances or poor judgement even, but the stark difference seems to be the lack of support – friends and family who care whether you eat, sleep or live.
That’s why, although it is frustratingly small at the moment, it’s so important that Heathrow based charity Heathrow Travel-Care set up a pilot project to help. It has brought police, a homeless charity and local authorities together. In nocturnal shifts, accompanied by police to signpost, outreach workers provide help to food and shelter and even documents to return home.
Since February they have rehoused 12 people, and when you actually meet some of these people you realise how chaotic their lifestyles can be and what an impressive job this small band of people are doing.
But there will always be those with empty luggage, passports, Oyster Cards and duty free bags that will succeed in making this - the paradise of rough sleeping - their home because alternatives are not available or come a poor second to the airport.