the most wonderful time

The people spending Christmas in danger on the streets

22nd December 2018

Imagine being homeless or in extreme poverty at Christmas.

For most of us the festive period is a time of celebration and happiness with our families, but for thousands of people around the country, Christmas can be incredibly difficult and far from merry.

This is a 21st century Britain and there is still a homelessness crisis in the UK. There are thousands of people without homes and living rough on our streets, as well as those in low paid sector jobs who are increasingly struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

While we all sit happy and warm in our houses, more than 9,000 people will wake up on Christmas day in cars, tents, trains and buses, sleeping rough in freezing temperatures under the twinkling Christmas lights, according to homelessness charity Crisis.

Homelessness is set to rise further still. For example, data from Leeds City Council, released under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that the number of homeless people living in the streets of Leeds has seen an increase from 72 people in February 2017 to 130 people by March 2018. This increase is reflected across the whole of the UK, with many charities predicting the figure to be much higher than usual this winter, in part because of the problem of unrecorded numbers of homeless people known as the hidden homeless.

Likewise, the government has been criticised for not providing statistics on the working homeless — those in low paid jobs and struggling to keep a roof over their head. Despite not having a full view of the issue, it is clear that homelessness is rapidly increasing. Furthermore, with the costs of living increasing as wages and salaries stagnate, the figures for the working homeless is also on the increase.

It can be all too easy to be caught up in having a good time at Christmas, without thinking about people who are suffering

Those taking shelter and sleeping rough in places such as tents and cars often remain invisible to support workers, meaning these people are unlikely to be provided with any support when coming to finding accommodation, healthcare and employment — as well as being lonely and vulnerable on Christmas day. And as the temperature begins to suddenly drop and Britain freezes, so do the thousands of homeless people across the country.

Government stats show more than 4,000 people sleep rough every night in the UK — a figure which has more than doubled since 2010 — though many charities dispute this because it doesn’t take into account those in shelters, temporary accommodation or the hidden homeless. Nevertheless, because of this insecurity, homeless people are at a greater risk of being a victim of violence. It is claimed that homeless people are 17 times more likely to be physically attacked and 15 times more likely to be verbally abused than someone who has a roof over their head.

Just this week, two men appeared in court after being filmed attacking a homeless man who later died of a brain injury. This follows news that almost 600 homeless people died in England and Wales last year, a 24% rise in five years, figures from the Office for National Statistics show.

Many of the volunteers who support this service are very busy and being able to fill the rota over the festive period can be a challenge

Working with some of the most vulnerable people in society, homeless charities are providing more than a place out of rain and cold this winter.

Huddersfield Mission serves a diverse community. Some of the people they support are homeless or inadequately housed, but many are facing other challenges such as mental health or dependency on drugs and alcohol.

Debs Murphy, support services manager from Huddersfield Mission says: “If homelessness is an issue, we work with the local council to either secure them temporary accommodation or the priority they need to increase their chances of resolving their housing situation.”

We have a Christmas day meal which is offered to people who would otherwise be on their own on Christmas day

In winter, the organisation has two extra services to help with the homeless and those at risk in the local community — yet, Huddersfield Mission faces problems in being able to offer these services. Murphy explains: “The first is the evening cafe, which is a winter provision offering free food and company to any adults who choose to use it. This operates throughout the winter months from November to March.

“Many of the volunteers who support this service are very busy volunteering for other charities and being able to fill the rota over the festive period can be a challenge, as we need 10 volunteers every night to run this service.”

Yet, when it comes to Christmas, Huddersfield Mission does offer a Christmas meal to those who regularly attend their cafe. “We also have a Christmas day meal which is offered to regular customers who would otherwise be on their own on Christmas day and may not have the financial means to celebrate themselves.” Murphy adds: “A local funeral director has coordinated a collection from their local community and therefore all our guests receive a shoebox full of goodies to take home.”

It’s so cold, no one truly understands [until] they are the ones sleeping on the streets

Anthony, aged 52 and living on the streets of Leeds, describes his experiences of being homeless at Christmas. “My wife divorced me and took full custody of my children and, ever since April 2016, I’d been struggling with job agencies to get jobs and eventually [I was] kicked out of my shared accommodation,” he says.

“Being homeless at this time of year is horrible, as each night you are wondering if you’re going to be sleeping on the streets, or a charity or support worker will approach you and get you into a shelter or a hostel for the night. It’s so cold, no one truly understands [until] they are the ones sleeping on the streets. Every night, I’m so scared to go sleep in case I end up getting hypothermia or even freeze to death.”

And with homeless people being at greater risk of violence, Anthony explains November and December are the worst months for abuse.

There’s a lot of people going out drinking and in some right states where you need to get out of the way of them

“As well as being out in the freezing cold temperatures, you’re not just scared to go sleep because of that, but there’s a lot of people going out drinking and in some right states where you need to get out of the way of them. Because if not, you’ll be both verbally and physically abused all night.”

Speaking about Christmas, Anthony said: “For those with a house and money it’s the best time of year — being able to enjoy it with your friends and families — but for me, it’s just like every day of the year.

“And with not being able to see my kids and having no contact with my family, I don’t really miss anything, as I have no one to celebrate it with. But it would be nice to have a nice warm meal and have a bed for the night and [for] someone come along and help me get my life back.

People need to remember not to be so judgemental that not everyone has a nice warm house to go to in these freezing months

“It would be nice if people could be more aware of rough sleepers in the winter months, as there is a lot of people on the streets, and those who are out on the weekends and evening in the cities having a good time need to remember not to be so judgemental that not everyone has a nice warm house to go to in these freezing months.”

can homelessness come to an end?

The government has failed at tackling the root causes of poverty. In one of Crisis’s reports, Everybody In: How to End Homelessness in Great Britain, it claims the UK could see an end to homelessness within 10 years if the government embrace certain policies to help tackle the roots of poverty.

The report places emphasis on the need for “enough housing available that homeless people can truly afford”. Crisis has outlined a comprehensive plan to make homelessness a thing of the past. It proposes:

Accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that the total costs of supporting homeless people between 2018 and 2041 with Crisis’s solutions following the report would cost £19.3bn and would deliver benefits of £53.9bn.

Yet, Crisis places emphasis on the fact for this to be effective the government need to think strategically and combine all the government departments to make ending homelessness a reality.

22nd December 2018