The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK is bringing a new tide of homelessness to a small square outside Charing Cross police station in London.
“There’s a lot of new faces” said Jas Bhogal, a volunteer, while he handed out free gloves, hats and face masks to a long queue of rough sleepers as temperatures dropped last week.
“Employees that worked in the hospitality businesses, those that didn’t get furloughed, ended up on the street and came to use this service,” he said. The demand is so high that three other charity food drops are operating at the same time as Bhogal’s Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team.
It is a national phenomenon, as the government itself has acknowledged. At dusk on the first night of England’s second national lockdown last week, the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, announced a £15m emergency fund to help house the most vulnerable rough sleepers. He named Birmingham, Bournemouth, Brighton, Bristol, Cornwall, Leicester, London, Manchester, Oxford and Salford as priority areas.
The newcomers in Westminster stood out in the hubbub of more than 100 people gathering provisions for the night. Fresher faced and with tidier luggage, they are the pandemic homeless, facing a first winter on the streets with a mix of anger, bewilderment, fear and fortitude.
Passersby might easily have mistaken Dirk Gallacher, 35, and Claire Knibbs, 33, for a couple on a romantic city break with their neat backpacks. In fact, they were on their way to bed down again in a doorway.
Gallacher had been employed as a security guard for pubs, nightclubs and shops in Wigan and Widnes, but his work dried up in the first lockdown. After a summer running up debts, he travelled to London in September to make a new start. It didn’t work. He has been rough sleeping since.
Knibbs, who had a steady job in a butcher’s throughout the first lockdown, became homeless six weeks ago after fleeing domestic abuse and “running out of sofas to stay on”. Her boyfriend’s work in corporate events had stopped, which contributed to the tensions that forced her to leave.
Now they are a couple, but not much else is going right. They have been sleeping in car parks and doorways, most recently around the corner from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and LocalGovernment in Westminster.
“This pandemic has played havoc with every part of life,” said Knibbs. “All the government looks at is the economic factors. They don’t see the impact it is having on the wider population. The amount of people that sleep rough in the area around the cabinet offices, it’s like they don’t even see it.”
Gallacher said: “I am at high risk of catching Covid because I have asthma and they still won’t do nothing. I have a letter from the hospital.”
Knibbs said she was “constantly on high alert, making sure we don’t catch something” as a result.
“They keep saying the NHS can’t cope,” she said. “More like the housing support services can’t bloody cope … There are so many people it’s a miracle there’s enough doorways and dry cubby holes for people to sleep in.”
That risk to the health of a highly vulnerable population helped trigger the government’s “everyone in” policy, which housed almost 15,000 homeless people in budget hotels during the first wave of the pandemic. Epidemiologists say the intervention saved hundreds of lives, and the homelessness sector wants to see it repeated on a larger scale than the £15m promised so far. Pressure for greater resources will continue as the impacts of predicted rises in unemployment, mental health problems and domestic violence come to the fore.
Many of those sleeping rough in Westminster had arrived recently from abroad. Half of those counted in London this summer were foreign nationals.
Among them was Bruno, 50, a tram driver from Germany, who arrived in June after domestic problems. He seemed stunned and ashamed to be sleeping rough. He stood aloof from the groups of longer-term homeless, staring into the middle distance.
“I am not a junkie, a drunk, insane or a criminal,” he said. “I may be stupid. I have made a big mistake. It’s dangerous on the streets. I close my eyes at night and I don’t know if I will open them again.”
He had paid a deposit on a flat and was going to look for work, perhaps on the buses, but the flat failed to materialise and he had his phone, documents and wallet stolen. One night sleeping on a London bus turned into several and then he started to sleep on the streets.
“I want to get back to work,” he said. “I don’t like living like this. I like going to the supermarket, being at home with my computer and TV. I didn’t live as an animal in Germany, feeding on the street like a pigeon or a stray cat.”
Elvis, 24, arrived from Romania arrived three months ago when he thought the pandemic was over to work in construction or in kitchens. He just wanted to take some money home, but now he is sleeping rough. “It’s cold. Winter is coming, but what can I do about it?” he said. “I don’t have a job so, what can I do, man?”
Others – such as Sergei, 39, an English teacher from Ukraine – are teetering on the edge, part of a much bigger cohort across the UK barely managing to keep a roof over their heads. He arrived in June to work and travel, two things Covid-19 has made harder.
He has a part-time job cleaning offices but other jobs have fallen through because of the new lockdown, most recently he was offered work as a kitchen porter in a sports club that has been forced to close. He has ended up sleeping in a hostel and collecting hot food from charities. His finances no longer add up . He earns £600 a month, and spends £380 on rent.
“I am worried I will have to sleep rough,” he said. “I don’t have enough money. I am in a bad situation.”