We met the rough sleepers forced to take refuge on public transport, and the charity workers doing what they can to help them.
Photo by the author
Winter is at its freezing-peak as I walk to Stockwell tube station. The sun may be out, but it's exasperatingly cold. When the Northern line train pulls in, it seems more crowded than usual; the commuters are crammed down one end of the carriage. Asleep across four seats is a rough sleeper. As Londoners are wont to do with any situation that makes them feel uncomfortable in their privilege, everyone turns a blind eye.
While some might grumble that he's taking up space on a ride he hasn't paid for, this is the desperate length many people are forced to in order to avoid the near-zero temperatures outside. The fact is, the number of homeless people seeking refuge on the public transport system is way up, increasing by 121 percent between 2012/13 and 2015/16 – the last set of data available.
As the train makes its journey northbound, I pass Old Street station, where I'd normally jump off and head to my heated office. Instead, I decide to ride the tube with this guy, waiting to see if he'll wake up, wondering what will happen at the end of the line. By the time the train pulls into its last stop at Edgware station, it’s just him and me in the carriage. A member of the cleaning team works walks in. "I think he's a bit tired," she tells me when she notices me trying to wake him up. "He’s been riding the train for hours, up and down."
She tells me it's not uncommon to find people like him asleep on the carriages. It's not her job to disturb them; instead, station staff notify streetlink.org.uk, which works with the charity Thamesreach to help rough sleepers into shelter and offer any medical assistance that may be needed. She gets off the train and continues her duties.
For the majority of us with jobs and a roof over our head, a cold winter is merely an inconvenience and a talking point. For rough sleepers, its months of seemingly unending struggle. Finding a warm spot to sleep and rest is a challenge, and the public transport system provides easy shelter. Jumping on the tube at Edgware, as this guy has done, gives him a 60-minute uninterrupted rest on a heated carriage. If he’s lucky, he’ll make a few journeys back and forth before the outreach teams meet him and help him off the train.
"The streets can be worse for girls," says Katy, 23, a rough sleeper I meet on the 88 bus route that runs from Camden to Clapham. The vehicle is the newer Routemaster design, so jumping on and off late at night via the back door is easy, while the arrival of the Night Tube has allowed for rough sleepers to seek shelter throughout the weekend in relative peace. It’s an issue that Transport for London (TfL) is keen to tackle before it becomes widespread, as it has in New York City, where thousands of rough sleepers use the subways each night.
"Drunk lads can pick fights and I’ve seen others get attacked," Katy continues. "On a bus, you can find a corner, it’s heated, and [you can] just kip for a couple hours if you’re lucky."
Katy is originally from Hull and has been homeless for over four years, ever since her parents kicked her out. She says her father was a drunk and physically abusive. She declines any help, insisting she’s fine.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and TfL are halfway through a campaign to raise awareness of rough sleeping in the capital, pooling the resources of 18 charities into one point of contact – the London Homeless Charities Group – and also setting up a donation point that then redistributes the money. So far, they’ve raised over £85,000.
Last year, the Mayor funded a new outreach project with three permanent members carrying out five shifts a week, alongside a pool of volunteers monitoring the night buses and tube. A pilot of just eight nighttime outreach shifts found 164 homeless people on the Night Tube and buses.
I join an outreach team one night in January to see the kind of challenges rough sleepers face on the transport network. Gareth and David work full time for Thamesreach, monitoring the transport network five nights a week. They’re joined by Anne-Marie, one of the many volunteers. Tonight, they’re checking the 149 route which runs from Edmonton to London Bridge, waiting at London Bridge to check the vehicles for rough sleepers. They’ll come across as many as 20 or even 30 rough sleepers during a shift.
"The 453, 25 and 38 routes are the popular ones," Gareth says. "They’re about an hour-and-a-half long. The tube can be chaotic at the weekends, and you get all sorts sleeping on there, not just rough sleepers, so it’s more challenging to help people."
A 149 bus pulls in to the station and the team hop on. There’s a rough sleeper asleep in the corner. They wake him gently, asking if he needs assistance. He gets up and steps off the bus without a fuss, but declines their offer.
"He was Polish, and his English isn’t very good," says Anne-Marie, who is a mum with a five-year-old son, but still volunteers two nights a week. "Most people just want to be left alone. He’ll probably just wander over to the next stop now and jump back on again."
David says the outreach team are trained to deal with hostile and challenging behaviour, but that they rarely encounter dangerous situations. Most of the people we meet tonight pose themselves nor the team no risk.
Claude, who's Congolese, is another rough sleeper. The team are familiar with him, having tried to get him to seek assistance from his local borough of Camden. Claude is in touch with his family but has been homeless since his relationship with his wife broke down. David gives Claude his contact details so he can get in touch during the day and be connected with the right help.
"The toughest people to help are the ones who are drunk, or with mental health issues, or if they're delusional and paranoid and might need medicating," says Gareth who has been working in the homeless sector for ten years. "It can be quite distressing when we meet young ladies who are sex working and use the buses to smoke drugs."
Just last week, the team helped two female sex workers who are long-term heroin users off a bus and into help. They’re meeting one of them later tonight to follow up on her progress. "While we didn’t catch it happening, we’re pretty sure she was about to make a sexual act on a bus," Anne-Marie says. "She had her top undone and her bra was showing when we made our way upstairs."
Wider TFL data says the number of homeless people sleeping on Night Buses in the winter of 2015/16 was 121 per cent higher than the same period in 2012/13.
While the number of people seen sleeping rough on London's streets has effectively halted (8,108 identified in 2016/17, compared to 8,096 the previous year) the grim reality is that the number has actually doubled from the 3,975 homeless people reported in 2010/11.
James Murray, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Residential Development, identifies several factors as the cause of this: the lack of social housing, rising rents, unscrupulous landlords and, crucially, the massive cuts to welfare made during eight years of Conservative government. The lack of support for people with mental health issues is also a major contributing factor. The issue won’t be resolved just by helping people out of homelessness; until the government addresses these broken links in society, people will continue to be forced onto the streets, buses and trains.
"When it’s raining hard or snowing, the buses and tubes are the only places to keep dry," Michael*, 19, tells me. He’s been homeless on and off for two years, sometimes crashing on friend's couches, and sleeping on buses or trains once he's outstayed his welcome. Michael ran away from home two years ago after his dad kicked him out when he came out as gay. A staggering 24 percent of young homeless people identify as LGBT, a disproportionately high number.
Michael’s since been escorting and selling drugs to survive. "I get by," he says. "I've got friends I can crash with, sometimes. If I’ve got enough money I’ll stay at a hostel. But when I don’t have the money, the bus and tube is the next best option. It’s an easy place to go."
The old policy under Boris Johnson stated that emergency shelters for homeless people would only open after the third consecutive day of sub-zero temperatures. Sadiq Khan updated this so that shelters open on day one of freezing weather. Winter temperatures in London generally don’t go below zero, so these shelters rarely open, but sub-zero temperatures have been forecast in the capital this week. Either way, when you’re sleeping on the street and temperatures are hovering around one or two degrees at night, it's raining and inhumanely cold, near-zero might as well be sub-zero.
"How do I know when the temperature is sub zero or not?" asks Michael. "Any night I’m out here, if it’s wet and cold, it’s just plain shit, mate. At least down there on the tube it’s warm and I can get away from it all for a while."
If you see a rough sleeper on public transport, please report them to streetlink.org.uk who will get them help.