Not helped by the typical British summer that we have experienced this year, they are constantly trying to keep warm and dry, living in constant fear of being moved on or being abused by passers-by, fearful of their only possessions being stolen, and constantly being judged.
The first lockdown last year led to local authorities seeking places for the street homeless to stay, keeping them safe from the effects of COVID-19. The government released £105m to support rough sleepers into interim housing and a further £16m to support those in this accommodation to access help for substance misuse issues. The fact that it took a global pandemic for anybody to appreciate the physical and mental health risks associated with being homeless raises certain questions for me. I would suggest that the risks arising from prolonged poor mental health caused by a lack of secure accommodation are far greater than catching coronavirus, and have been affecting this group for far longer.
London and the surrounding areas account for over a quarter of all rough sleeping in England. Before the pandemic hit, figures showed that a disproportionate number of these rough sleepers in London were from Central and Eastern European countries, accounting for almost 30 per cent. This number could have been significantly higher if those of unknown nationality were included, but through fear of being sent home this information is not always disclosed. In trying to tackle homelessness in London and the South East, there needs to be a specific focus on this community – but this presents a unique set of challenges.
Following a dream
As part of the government’s COVID-19 housing initiative, which must be welcomed despite a delayed start, I was introduced to four Eastern European men referred by the local authority. These men had lived in the woods for the last six years. They worked when they could, for cash-in-hand jobs paying below the minimum wage, and drank alcohol every night to help them sleep in the cold conditions – largely keeping themselves hidden and unnoticed. They were in poor physical health, the eldest being seventy-one with long-term heart failure.
These men were reasonably well-educated and had come to Britain separately to improve their life chances. Somehow, they all found each other through the large community of Eastern Europeans in similar situations. They would congregate in parks and drink cheap, strong Polish lager until they slept where they fell. The larger group gradually drifted away from the remaining four – they either went home, moved to the next town, or in some cases, fell ill and died.
They followed the dream of coming to Britain, but it did not turn out how they expected. They had all suffered varying degrees of childhood trauma, abuse, relationship and family breakdown and poverty. Some experienced xenophobic attitudes in both their workplaces and communities, leading to yet more of the anxiety and depression they were trying to escape. Each one began to use more and more alcohol to ease their mental ill-health. The more they used, the more they needed to reach the numbness they required.
Untrusting Of support
By the time they were housed by Druglink Choices, they were in a very poor way, and it took several meetings to persuade them to settle inside. They were used to the woods and comfortable with what they knew, despite the conditions. They were untrusting of support workers and nervous around anyone in a position of authority. They were especially uneasy about being sent back to their country of origin as they did not have settled status here in the UK – obviously, this also meant that they had been unable to access benefits, which made money scarce and they sometimes had to beg for money for food and alcohol.
They were insistent they remained together, so they were housed in a four-bedroomed private rented property and given a floating support worker. From week one, despite the language barrier, the change in them was rapid and palpable. The language barrier was an initial problem, but as time moved on, it appeared that one of the group knew more English than he’d previously disclosed and he acted as the go-between for the group. They had daily house meetings which largely consisted of hand gestures, drawings, and the use of Google Translate (which isn’t always accurate, leading to much hilarity on a few occasions).
They kept the house spotless, did their chores, made their beds every day and with the help of the local food bank, started to look after themselves physically. Three of them stopped using alcohol completely and the fourth cut down considerably. As lockdown restrictions eased we were in a race against the clock to support them in gaining settled status to claim benefit and have recourse to public funds. We were concerned that if they couldn’t get access to housing benefit they would have had to return to the woods if the local authority withdrew financial support, and I didn’t think the eldest man would survive that.
I am happy to say that the group are still in a Druglink Choices house going from strength to strength, with three of them learning English online with the use of a donated laptop and tablet. They are humbled by the support they have received from the community, their support workers and the local church. The more help they accepted the more they understood that people cared. This in itself improved their feeling of self-worth, leading to improved mental health outcomes. They still have a long way to go in terms of getting to the root cause of their mental health issues but they have opportunities and the chance to build self-confidence and eventually, hopefully, gain independence.
A sense of Belonging
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, feeling loved and like you belong in society comes two layers up the pyramid from the basic level of a human’s physiological need for food and shelter – and just one above the need for safety. If we do not reach out to help those who are forced to rough sleep, they will eternally remain at the basic two levels of the hierarchy of needs, never reaching a sense of belonging and thus never addressing the mental health issues they are experiencing as they never get beyond pure survival. As a society, we seem to be talking about mental health more openly and are more accepting of it – one of the few positives to arise from the global pandemic.
I have seen these men at the depths of depression and their nascent recovery when given shelter, safety and kindness. A connection with this community and a target to lower rough sleeping amongst them could minimise the numbers of street homeless in London and the South East – which would go a long way to help reduce homelessness in England. Helping this group gain basic needs will put us a position to break down their mental health barriers, support that these vulnerable people desperately need.
Wendy Nee is director of care and support services at Druglink.