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Homelessness in the UK
Rough sleepers in Soho
by Britta Landt

A survey of homelessness in London, UK and efforts to reorient their lives. 

London, England, UK
With its cafés and bars, theatres and colourful nightlife, Soho is part of the London nightclub scene and the tourist trail. The downside is drugs, prostitution and a growing number of mainly young, homeless people living on its streets. I interviewed three of these "rough sleepers" as they are also called. What stands out for me is how friendly, polite, helpful, matter-of-fact and uncynical they were. All were thrown out by their famil
or left when they were still children and have been living rough ever since. They find it a struggle to live on the state benefit of £35 a week. Evidently, violence and death are part of their life. Six weeks prior to the interviews, two homeless men were stabbed to death in Soho.
sean.jpg (19235 bytes)

Sean, 19, from south London

Sean is lying in a sleeping bag in a door entrance in Noel Street, eating a chocolate muffin; he also has a baguette wrapped in plastic. He suggests that we go and sit on some stairs while we talk. He doesn’t want me to help him carry anything there, in particular his food, in case I run away with it.

"I’ve been on the streets since I was 12. My Dad kicked me out. He was not very good to me, he never gave me decent clothes or anything. I went to school looking like a tramp. My Mum left a long time ago. I don’t have much education.

"I beg for money to finance my habit (he pulls up his jumper sleeve to show injection scars). I take any drug I can lay my hands on, but mainly heroin. I like AMP (liquid intravenous methadon) because it’s cleaner. I get it from people who have it prescribed by their doctor and then sell it on.

My hopes for the future? I hope to get a flat." (At this point he had to leave because he had made an arrangement with friends to get drugs.)


Homelessness in England

o1997: 360,000 homeless people in England
o Causes: unemployment; poverty; mental and physical illness; alcohol and drug abuse; relationship and family breakdowns; domestic violence; refugee status; landlord disagreements and reduction in low-rent accommodation.
o Approximately 246,000 young people were made homeless in 1995.
o   86 per cent were forced to leave home.
o Causes: family arguments, poverty, overcrowding, physical and sexual violence (affecting 40 per cent of young homeless females); alcohol and drug abuse; discharged or left institution (50 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds).


Colin, 27, from Leeds

Colin is sitting in a sleeping bag in a door entrance in Berwick Street, Soho, asking passers-by for money. At first reluctant to talk, saying he is not feeling well, he opens up as we talk.

"I have kidney pain because I drink too much. I generally don’t feel very well. My girlfriend (he points to a girl sitting in a doorway opposite on a large piece of cardboard) is trying to get me to stop drinking. For the past four years that doorway has been my home.

"I am homeless, let’s just say, because of family problems. I left Leeds because of too many bad memories. I am on the council housing waiting list.


Britain’s leading housing campaigning charity Shelter believes that "homelessness is the result of a failed housing system. To be without a home is unacceptable. It is degrading and damaging to individuals and the community and has enormous social and economic costs for us all."


"I regularly do part-time work, on and off, for different people. I claim benefits but the problem is benefits are not enough to live on. You have to pay for your clothes, for your washing. People think the homeless charities give you things for free but that is not true. You have to pay for their services, for everything, clothes and food, even at places like the Salvation Army or at soup kitchens like St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square. Refugees who come here get more help than we do, including fully-furnished flats. The government is a waste of time. Fifteen of my friends have died in the last three years. I know I’ve got a niche somewhere but so far I’ve not been able to find it."


Positive initiatives

‘Rough Sleepers Initiative’: launched in 1990 with an initial budget of £96 million. Has provided housing particularly targeting young people sleeping rough in London. In 1993 the project was allocated a further £86 million and £73 million in 1996, reaching other regions of the UK.

‘Foyers’: These schemes offer young people accommodation, training and advice under one roof in 50 locations in the UK. ‘Foyers’ were started in Germany and France, and are funded through a combination of state and private industry funds.


Sam, 19, from Lewisham, south London
— Colin’s girlfriend
colinsam.jpg (16451 bytes)

Sam is sitting in a doorway and watches as Colin and I talk. She is happy to be interviewed on her own afterwards. She has a lot of pent-up energy, is very restless and scratches her body during the entire conversation. She is an ardent Chelsea Football Club supporter and proudly shows me that all her clothes are blue, her favourite colour, including her socks and her sleeping bag.

"I was born and bred in Lewisham and am on the council waiting list for a flat. My father works for Lewisham council. He kicked me out when I was 12. My mother is dead. She was a heroin addict. I have a three-year-old son. He lives with his father, I don’t want to have anything to do with his father. I see my son every day at nursery. He was expelled from nursery recently for stabbing another child with a pair of scissors.

I get £35 income-support every week but you can’t live on that, and they are being really difficult. I make a maximum of £8 a day by begging.  I don’t take drugs, only occasionally. I know everyone around here.  I hate the government, and I hate this country. My future? I would like to hitchhike around Europe and just stay where I like it. But in 10 years’ time I’ll be dead. So many people get killed and stabbed round here, not by us, but because there are many who hate the homeless."

From the December 1998 issue of Share International.

Articles about homelessness

FAQ on homelessness
Also see:
Articles on hunger and poverty
Articles on sharing
Articles on social justice issues
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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005