Tea and sympathy in Victoria
8.45pm, Maltravers Street
Charing CrossThen the van stops, a group of around 30 people crowds round. The people are younger here, there’s a few women, and a smattering of black and Asian faces. Christian, 40, carries a briefcase and his once-smart clothes are now showing their age. He has walked from Kensington. ‘I am desperate,’ he says. Originally from Benin, he first worked in Germany before being laid off and heading to London to find work. He has been on the streets for three months. ‘I’ve tried everything. I’ve been to interviews but have had no luck. I can’t bear this for much longer. I am aching all over from walking.’ Westminster Council is trying to clamp down on soup kitchens, which, according to Westminster’s councillor for housing Angela Harvey, ‘encourage people to stay on the streets because they can just about get by.’ Although the council is not targeting Simon directly, it is trying to stop a run by the charity Coptic Church after complaints from residents about noise. I ask Christian how he would cope if the kitchens were closed. ‘We eat from the day centres in the morning and from the soup kitchens in the evening. If they closed, it would be the death of us.’
9.30pm, behind Victoria stationDozens of figures emerge from the shadows and surround the van, even before we’ve come to a standstill. The atmosphere here feels edgier and in the deepening night, it could almost be a backdrop from ‘Dawn of the Dead’. There are around 70 people, all pushing forward for food – numbers have increased in the last couple of months following the end of the agricultural picking season. ‘I have no work and no food,’ says Kalinka, a tiny Polish woman with a heavily wrinkled face, in broken English. She has been in London for two years, and astonishingly, lives on the streets with her two sons, Jarek, 24 and Hannes, 26. Another young Polish lad is wrapped in a blanket and collapsed against a wall. His head rolls to one side.
‘Too much drug,’ he says making a ‘shooting-up’ gesture with his hands. Simon estimates that a third of the 160-odd people turning up at its soup kitchens are from the EU accession countries (so-called A8s) that joined in 2004. While most of the 600,000 A8 migrants who have arrived in the UK over the last few years have found jobs, with many showing great entrepreneurial spirit, some are ill-prepared for the cost of living and under the EU treaty they cannot claim benefits until they have worked here for over a year. Inspector Barnard, who heads the Metropolitan Police’s Homeless Unit in Westminster tells me later: ‘Many of the eastern Europeans speak no English, have no money and few job prospects.’ Eighty per cent of the homeless he deals with are Polish. The scale of the problem is so great that his unit buys destitute A8’s one-way coach tickets back to the countries they’ve come from. Since last July, 260 homeless people have returned home. ‘We don’t force them. They want to go,’ says Barnard. But the Home Office grant which funds the tickets and provides officers and an interpreter for the unit will dry up in October.
‘The situation for London’s homeless will reach a critical point unless we receive more money,’ says Barnard, who warns that if the numbers are left to increase there will be more crime and drink and drug problems – and the addition of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU next year could exacerbate the problem. ‘There will a serious situation unless preparations are made to help these people,’ he says.
Local councillor Harvey is critical of the government. She says the Department of Work and Pensions should set up a ‘welcome desk’ in Victoria coach station to help new arrivals find work, and allow them to claim their Polish dole money if they are unemployed here.
10pm, VictoriaWe pile back in the van and head a little wearily back to Camden. I’m staggered by the extent of the problem. As for the wrongs and rights of soup kitchens – they are a lifeline for people such as Christian, who are unable to claim benefits and have no other source of income. But soup kitchens are the least of Westminster’s problems. Unless the government puts more money into homeless provision, London is about to see a homeless problem explode on its streets, which could make what I’ve seen tonight look like a picnic.
Some names have been changed.
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