A rough night, every night

Graham Millington meets some of the borough’s rough sleepers as they struggle on the streets through winter

Stefan begging at a supermarket

Stefan begging at a supermarket

A report last month from the homeless charity Shelter revealed that of the 7,634 people designated ‘homeless’ in Waltham Forest, 47 were rough sleepers.

Many of these are seen begging in town centres and tube stations, and as usual the Christmas season prompted many charitable and political organisations to comment on the problem. But we rarely got to hear from the rough sleepers themselves.

I decided to meet several of these people during December, to find out how they became beggars and where they were going to spend their Christmas. I also wanted to know how they viewed their future and what needed to be done to make their next Christmas a far happier time. I have not used their real names in this article.

I met John in Leytonstone. He is 26 and was born in Swansea, but grew up in Manchester. He tells me he suffered extensive parental abuse for many years and by the age of 17 had been expelled from school and left home to live with his sister. This arrangement faltered as his sister was also within an abusive relationship, so John started sleeping on the streets. He subsequently served prison sentences totalling nearly four years, for various crimes. He came to London seeking a better opportunity, but clearly had not found it.

Although last year he ended up in a religiously-based hostel in Nottingham where he had food and warmth, John felt he didn’t fit in and decided to leave: “We had to pray and say grace at dinner. They wanted me to be like them, so I got back to London.”

John, who told me he had eight GCSEs, has a daily target from begging of £14, enough to get a bed in a shelter. He is used to life on the streets but hates the cold. For Christmas he was planning to have a meal at a church and maybe stay with friends. He confessed to me that he was getting a bit fed up with this half-life and was eager to find a home and a job.

“If I had that,” he said, “I could start living.”

I met Peter, 48, in Leytonstone. He had been living on the streets on-and-off for ten years. He claims benefits of £130 every fortnight. Peter once enjoyed a family life with a partner, his two children, and had a landscaping job, but all this disappeared as he developed a drinking problem and currently he lives either with friends or on the street. Peter was given a chance in a hostel but says: “I messed around with my friends and left.” By doing so he made himself ‘intentionally’ homeless and was no longer deemed a priority for help.

Peter told me: “I had a normal Christmas as a kid. I was a bit naughty, but friendly at school. I left with no qualifications. This year I’ll get a meal at a church and maybe go to a hostel.”

When asked about next year Peter said: “I haven’t a clue. I know I can hold down a job. I am a hard worker, but I need an address to get a proper job and I need a job to get the money to get an address. It’s crazy. I just need a chance that’s all.”

Many people do not donate to beggars for fear they are just feeding their drug habit. This is an unfair generalisation, but in the case of Stefan it is true. I meet him in Leyton. He is aged 40 and arrived from Bulgaria to find offers of a home and a job that were never realised. He begs daily and has been to prison on several occasions. He wants to be prescribed methadone to get off drugs, but is not registered with a doctor. On a good day he gets £35 begging. Planning to spend his Christmas at a church, his hope was to leave the UK: “Next year I will be with my mother in Cyprus and be okay.”

Irishman Sean is aged 37 and begs at tube stations in East London. He is a drug addict and has also been diagnosed with a mental illness. Recently he was discharged from hospital, not because he was well, but because he refused the help he was offered. I had the opportunity to talk with his fraught mother who cannot look after him. She told me: “When I took him in he started selling the furniture to get his drug money. I try to help him. I want to get him more help, but he won’t go. He’s frightened.”

Sean himself seems the most vulnerable of all the people I interview for this article. He said he was “hopeful” of spending Christmas with his mother and hoped to get off drugs soon, but was unsure how this would happen.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan recently designated £9million to alleviate the difficulties of London’s rough sleepers, but it is clear from meeting beggars in Waltham Forest that the problem is very complex and may require imaginative solutions.