More People Than Ever Are Sleeping Rough on Night Buses – and It’s Going to Get Worse

Exclusive: Data obtained by VICE World News reveals a hidden population of homeless people in London seeking refuge on night buses as millions are set to enter fuel poverty.
Max Daly
London, GB
London-homeless-night-bus-cost-of-living
Londoners board a night bus. Photo: Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images Images.

The number of people found sleeping rough on night buses in London has risen almost fourfold over the last decade, according to new figures seen by VICE World News.

The Transport for London (TfL) data, revealed under Freedom of Information laws, shows that there were 2,042 reports by drivers of people sleeping rough on night buses between April 2020 and March last year, compared to 525 nine years ago. It found the number had jumped by 83 percent in the last four years.

Advertisement

Experts said those found sleeping on night buses include a higher than average proportion of female and older rough sleepers. They fear the number of people using London’s night buses as a temporary home could rocket in the winter as spiraling energy bills push people living in poverty to seek emergency sources of shelter. 

The UK is in an escalating cost-of-living crisis, with energy bills expected to rocket by 80 percent in October. Earlier this month research by the University of York revealed two-thirds of UK households – 45 million people – will be trapped in fuel poverty by January. A huge rise in the cost of gas and electricity is set to push UK inflation to 18 per cent next year, according to a report from Citigroup

According to the data, the bus route with the highest number of rough sleepers was the N15, a three-hour round trip between Romford in the east of the city and Oxford Circus in the centre. 

Homeless agencies said the popularity of a night bus route for rough sleepers is linked to its length and the areas it travels through. The N15 is one of the longest routes, which goes through some of the poorest parts of east London to key rough sleeping hotspots in the West End, including Charing Cross and Trafalgar Square.

Advertisement

London’s night buses, notorious for carrying passengers who are drunk and noisy, are unsafe places, especially for young people and women to seek shelter and sleep. Reports of sexual harassment on public transport almost doubled in the four years up to 2018. 

Centrepoint, a charity helping young homeless people in London, found one in 10 of the 18 to 25-year-olds it helps had spent a night on a bus because they had nowhere else to stay

"For many of the young people we support who have found themselves in similar situations a bus can feel safer than being outside on the streets,” said Billy Harding, policy and research manager at Centrepoint. “In reality, however, even a well-lit and CCTV-monitored bus is no place for a young person and they can still find themselves exposed to verbal, physical and sexual assault.” 

Harding said things were about to get worse. “The worry we have is that, with rising energy bills and other costs, we are only just seeing the beginning of a trend here.” 

Part of the reason more rough sleepers are being found on the capital’s night buses is because a greater effort is being made to seek out and help them. In 2017, after a leaked TfL report in 2016 found a 121 percent rise in rough sleeping on night buses in four years, TfL agreed to fund a £300,000 Night Team outreach team to find and assist those seeking shelter on London’s late night buses and Tube lines.

Advertisement

Bill Tidnam, chief executive at London charity Thames Reach, which runs the team, said it works with bus and Tube drivers “to increase awareness and reporting, to allow us to find and work with more people to help them into accommodation and away from homelessness”. 

The team found women and older people are overrepresented in rough sleeping bus statistics compared to the rough sleeping population as a whole. Tidham said: “The people they find on night uses tends to be a higher proportion of women, older people and those with mental health and substance abuse problems.”

The data comes as rough sleeping is on the increase in London, and deaths among the most vulnerable of the 274,000 homeless people in England are spiralling. 

According to the latest statistics from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network, 2,998 people were seen sleeping rough in the capital between April and June this year – a 16 per cent increase on the same period last year. 

In 2021, it was found the number of rough sleepers dying in the UK had jumped by 80 percent in two years. In 2016 Joseph Agnew, a homeless man found sleeping on a night bus after it reached its destination in Peckham, south London died shortly after he was taken off by police and propped up against a bus shelter. 

Advertisement

“In no society should it be accepted that hundreds of people must spend their nights moving from bus to bus because they do not have somewhere safe to sleep at night,” said Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, the UK’s national homelessness charity.  

“Now with energy bills soaring to previously unimaginable figures, inflation mounting and rents becoming simply unaffordable we’re at risk of seeing more people pushed into this situation if nothing is done.”

Downie said that given the government introduced emergency measures to help the homeless temporarily off the streets during the pandemic, “there is no reason why this cannot be done now”. 

“Ultimately we need to move beyond short term solutions and get to grips with tackling the root causes forcing people into homelessness in the first place. This means building the affordable homes we desperately need and investing in housing benefit so people can pay their rent.”

TfL said bus drivers are required to call London’s 24-hour bus control centre if they see a rough sleeper on their bus who is aggressive, needs urgent medical attention or is suspected to be under 18. Drivers report rough sleepers on their bus via text message. “TfL is committed to working with the Mayor’s Office and homeless charities to identify and support rough sleepers that seek refuge on the transport system. Our staff regularly intervene and provide valuable assistance to anyone that needs help.”

A spokesperson for London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the rise in people found rough sleeping on buses was down to “an increase in reporting of cases and the continued impact of Government policies such as cuts to social security on some of the most vulnerable Londoners.” 

They added: “While those sleeping rough on public transport are only part of the picture on rough sleeping in London, it’s clear there is much more to do, particularly with cost of living pressures hitting Londoners hard. 

“The mayor continues to urge ministers to take urgent steps to prevent hardship and homelessness this winter, including freezing private sector rents, funding the services and social security system that people sleeping rough need, and stepping up wider support to combat the cost-of-living crisis.”