Windsor Is Trying to Hide Its Homeless for the Royal Wedding
We spoke to the local rough sleeping population about the measures being taken to make Windsor look like a fairytale town.
The ARK Project's bus
"I've got chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, I'm on the street, I'm getting no help and I'm getting beaten up during my sleep," says Wayne, who has been sleeping rough on Windsor's streets – the Berkshire town that will host the Royal Wedding on Saturday – for over seven months. "I just want somewhere to live and call home so I can sort my life out, get a job and improve my health."
In January, Simon Dudley – the leader of the Royal Borough – demanded police expel homeless people from the town centre ahead of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's special day, in an attempt to prevent reality from encroaching upon a fairy tale. The wedding is expected to cost taxpayers upwards of £7.2 million; a fraction of that could potentially solve the rising homeless crisis in the town, which has around 20 people regularly accessing support services.
To find out whether Dudley followed through on his threat, we headed to Windsor, where the contrast between the regal affair and the town's social problems – beneath the fleeting expressions of monarchy-mania – is stark.
Immediately upon our arrival, a security guard called the police on a distressed homeless women sitting on the high street. That was a sign of things to come, as we quickly discovered a tale of two towns.
Stuart, a recovering heroin addict, perched on a blanket-padded doorway, told us he's been on Windsor's streets for eight months while he waits to be housed.
"Someone came and took my sleeping bag out of the bus stop where I sleep," he said, alleging that the police took it – a claim made by other rough sleepers, who were seen to have had their belongings removed. He added that he's not currently receiving enough support: "I just want a bit of help getting accommodation. The people who help us the most are the people who can't afford it. They might be one step away from where we are."
Michael Longsmith is the founder of the ARK Project, a charity that parked its double-decker bus – furnished to provide refuge to the town's rough sleepers – opposite Windsor Castle. He doesn't believe the council is doing enough to solve the crisis in the town: "They need to set up a shelter, [staffed by] professional people, that can go through the people's problems and signpost and take them to the relevant organisations like we do," he said. "We did that, and housed 40 in six months."
Since we spoke to him, Michael's bus has been confiscated by Thames Valley police because, they alleged, he didn't have the correct license. It's a charge he denies – but that didn't stop the bus from being impounded and driven away.
After we spoke to Michael, we came across a homeless man sprawled on the floor outside the Harte and Garter, an opulent hotel and spa. Inside, we spoke to a group of elderly Freemasons, who were standing around the bar wearing matching ties, sipping £12 gin and Canada Drys. They regretted that there are so many poverty-stricken people in Windsor – but then, there's always been poor people everywhere in the UK.
Augmenting this hyper-reality was the army of machine-gun toting police sentries patrolling the medieval castle, where a prince is set to marry an American actress.
On the same street outside, in clear view through the non-rose-tinted windows, lay people on cardboard sheets, who are increasingly being criminalised across the country as councils fine them for begging, pushing them further into debt.
Simon Dudley asserted that the town's beggars are raking it in, a claim reinforced by several charity workers we met, who claimed that one guy made up to £300 a day.
Sunny, yet another rough sleeper, told us he's not doing as well as Dudley suggests: "Dudley? He’s a bit of a dick, really," he said. "He has his head in the clouds. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I barely survive. I’m lucky to make £10."
Sunny epitomised the feelings of the homeless in respect to whether he’s looking forward to the wedding. "I am and I ain't, I suppose," he said. "I am, 'cause it's going to be a good day. And congratulations to them. But I ain’t because of my situation now. It's like another day, innit."
There are fears that the rough sleepers will be moved on from the procession route ahead of the wedding. Just across the road from Sunny are a group of royal fanatics, who will sleep there draped in Union Jacks, until the procession. The material difference between them and the homeless is unclear, but apparently they won’t be forcibly dispersed ahead of the ceremony.
In The Prince Harry – the aptly-named pub adjacent to the castle – concern for the growing homeless problem in the town was pronounced, albeit interspersed with racist tropes. At another bar up the road, staff were less concerned. When it was suggested that homeless people need a hug, rather than be arrested, one bartender retorted, "Not my problem!"
Additional reporting by Danny Lavelle