As fixed pavement deterrents are used to clear Britain’s streets of homeless, our man spends a day down and out in London
My concrete mattress outside the shop window is cold and bone-achingly hard – just like life on the streets for Britain’s forgotten homeless. Night after night 2,400 people sleep rough in doorways and pavements across the country.
But this “unsightly and unwanted” band of homeless people is facing an added difficulty – spikes are being put up in regular resting places.
Only a petition signed by 130,000 angry people in Southwark, South London, forced the removal of a method normally used to keep pigeons off roofs.
I might as well be a pigeon tonight, not worth a glance, as I spend 24 hours roughing it on the street just a couple of miles from those flats in Southwark.
In my doorway I see a passer-by and ask: “Can you spare any change please?” Clearly uncomfortable he gives me a poisonous stare before turning his head away and quickening his pace. “C***,” I hear him growl as he hurries on.
Such hostility towards the homeless is not uncommon. At least I didn’t get a kicking. A fate steadily on the increase for the thousands on city streets – a number that has risen 37 per cent in the past five years.
So I turn to some battered veterans of vulnerability for wisdom and advice.
|Abuse: Kieran tells of attacks|
Kieran Duggan is only 21 but he is ages old in hardship. He has been homeless from the age of nine and his only possessions are the clothes he is wearing. He has epilepsy and asthma. He has already been hospitalised with hypothermia four times. Yet he has no sleeping bag to keep out the cold, only the clothes he is wearing.
“Being on the streets so young I was really vulnerable,” he says. “I’ve been jumped on and attacked, I’ve had my phone stolen, I’ve even been urinated on.
“Most nights I don’t even try to sleep, I just walk and walk. Sometimes I’ll sit on a bench and fall asleep until a copper comes and shines a torch on me and moves me on. That happens all the time.”
It’s not long before I experience that myself on a bustling street just off Leicester Square where hundreds of people are enjoying a night out.
At first I wonder if the sleeping bag wrapped around me has the same magical powers as Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Feet fall inches from my crossed legs, but their owners never look down.
That illusion is soon dispelled as the police approach me. The first bobby is tall and imposing but kind and compassionate. He asks if I’m OK and warns me begging is illegal before wandering off. Ten minutes later I’m surrounded by three more officers who are far less friendly. They tell me I’m not allowed to sit on the pavement and I have to move.
Where to? They don’t really care – but I can’t stay here. My ankles are numb from sitting contorted on the cold pavement, but I struggle to my feet and stumble off.
My search for a new spot is hindered by the new wave of metal spikes that have sprung up outside shop windows.
|Brutal: Spikes to clear away homeless|
I find Mikey Ovens, 36, sat near Trafalgar Square with his pet Staffordshire terrier Lucky. He has been on the streets for 10 years.
“Some people are really friendly and generous,” he reassures me.
“But some are just nasty. Last week a guy kicked me and my dog while we were sleeping. When my dog growled at him I got in trouble, even though she was just defending us. That’s what happens when you’re homeless.”
Further along on the Strand those words of warning are echoed by Dave Hardy, 35, and Paul Marsden, 44. Dave, originally from Paddington, has been on the streets for four months after spending five years living with family in Ireland.
When he moved home he was no longer classed as a British resident and was refused housing benefit. Within four weeks he got a brutal lesson in how hard life on the streets can be.
“Two geezers came up to me while I was sleeping, one of them kicked me in the face so hard he knocked my tooth clean out,” he says. “Then they grabbed my phone. What kind of human being robs a homeless person?”
Paul has been homeless for about a year since losing his job while battling depression. He sleeps in squats whenever possible, but often finds himself on the streets.
“Spikes on the pavement don’t seem so bad compared to some of what we have to deal with,” he says.
“You’ll see a lot of guys sleeping in doorways around here. I don’t do that, it’s not safe. You get punched, kicked, spat on. People go through your pockets. I even heard about one guy who was set on fire.”
|Caring: Money from a kind man|
I try for a little more change before I bed down for the night. People give me a wide berth, as if my homelessness might be contagious.
By 2am the stream of passers-by has slowed to a trickle and a chill creeps into the air. I settle on my concrete bed and try to drift off, but the noise of traffic and fear of attack make sleep impossible.
So I sit up bored and realise why some on the street turn to alcohol to pass the long, empty hours. Even now the cruel jokes continue. One person on their way home shouts at me:
“Wake up, time for breakfast.”
Thankfully five Good Samaritans take pity and give me money. In the early morning light I count £6.90, which we handed to a homeless charity.
I make one final stop before walking to the tube. I return to the back street where I met Kieran the night before. As I offer him my sleeping bag his eyes water and he thanks me repeatedly. It’s amazing what a simple act of kindess means on these streets.
Basic skills gap making homelessness worse
More than half of homeless people lack the basic English and maths skills they need to get jobs, a report will warn tomorrow.
Research found 51 per cent could not read at GCSE grade D-G level, while 55 per cent were unable to do even simple sums.
Homeless charity St Mungo’s Broadway compiled its Reading Counts report after a major survey of rough sleepers’ basic skills.
Chief executive Howard Sinclair said:
“Poor literacy and numeracy impacts across work, health, keeping a home and positive relationships. These people need a second chance to build their future.
“That’s why we are asking the Government to deliver on their promise to prioritise training opportunities for homeless people.”
An earlier report by the charity called for emergency support for people on the streets and urgent action to ease the housing shortage.
By Warren Mange, Mirror.co.uk;