Rough sleepers share lonely reality of homelessness on deserted London streets

A rough sleeper in London says he often waits days to speak to anyone with the capital’s busy streets now eerily quiet a year into the pandemic.

The pavements outside Victoria station and Westminster Cathedral were hotspots for homeless people just 12 months ago – due to the constant stream of pedestrians.

But for the likes of Rorey Ennis, who “can’t be trusted” in hostels, it means loneliness and little chance of food or spare change.

The 23-year-old, originally from Birmingham, said he survives “day-to-day”.

Sat in front of a Pret a Manger beside Victoria’s main entrance on what in normal times would have been a busy Wednesday afternoon (February 3), Rorey explains this part of London is now eerily sparse.

“It is more lonely than it used to be,” he says. “You spend days waiting to speak to someone.”

Originally from Birmingham, Mr Ennis has been sleeping rough “since I was 15 years old”, and has been in London for four years.

“I mostly hang around Victoria and Westminster and stayed here through all the lockdowns,” he explains.

“I usually sleep in my mate’s tent by the cathedral. There are hostels, but I don’t go to them, I can’t be trusted in a property.

“I’m surviving by just doing it day by day. Sometimes people will pop into Pret to get you something.”

At 4.05pm over in Piccadilly Circus, a rough sleeper who asks not to be named says he arrived in London from Cardiff two weeks ago.

“I don’t get any benefits,” says the 52-year-old. “I rely on getting my food and money from donations. Today I’ve had a panini and a sausage roll and two coffees. I go to public toilets when I can, but they close at night.”

Like Mr Ennis, he says there are not many rough sleepers around Piccadilly Circus – an area where heavy footfall once made it an attractive location to pick up donations from passers by.

Family-of-seven left homeless days before children are due to return to school

He continues: “There have been outreach people and that’s it… They tell you where to go for housing or where to get food and a tent or clothes.

“I keep myself to myself and I sometimes see more rough sleepers around Charing Cross station.

“At night time I’m mostly outside. Since I’ve been in London I’ve been able to sleep in a hostel twice. They’re often full.”

Asked whether he’s felt scared of catching Covid-19, he simply replies: “F*** the pandemic.”

At about 5.15pm, Boyd Seagal is waiting in The Strand with a dozen other homeless people, including his partner, for a group of volunteers to arrive who will set up tables and lay out free food.

The 31-year-old says: “My partner and I have been homeless together in London for about a year.

“I have moved around a lot but I have been homeless at different stages since I was six years old. I left London and carried on to Mansfield and Nottingham and then Chesterfield, Derbyshire and Scotland.”

Mr Seagal suggests an answer as to why the capital’s historic centre appears to have fewer rough sleepers than might have been expected.

“Recently my partner and I have been coming to Charing Cross every day,” he said. “We walk from Wandsworth and all the way back.

“We have been put in separate rooms in a hostel in Wandsworth for 28 days. We started there two weeks ago.

“You get showers and bits and pieces and a chance to do your washing.”

A study by the charity St Mungo’s and the Greater London Authority shows that the number of people sleeping rough in the borough of Westminster fell markedly between July to September and October to December.

The number of rough sleepers counted by outreach workers during the last quarter of the year was 692, which was 208 fewer than the previous quarter.

This figure was also lower than when the same study was carried out in October to December 2019 – when 616 rough sleepers were spotted.

Petra Salva, from St Mungo’s, said: “Since March, our teams in Westminster – in partnership with the local council – have been working round the clock to make sure as many people as possible are provided with accommodation so they are protected from Covid-19 as well as the other risks associated with being street homeless.

“And we know from [the data] that a significant reduction in the number of people sleeping rough in Westminster has been achieved.

“However, this is not a static issue and there are people still coming to the streets who need and deserve immediate protection and long-term support.”

Westminster Council currently has more than 400 supported accommodation beds in use for homeless people, and a further 80 beds in two “assessment centres”.

The council says it has helped 700 people into accommodation since March 2020.

Councillor Heather Acton, cabinet member for communities, said: “Our outreach teams continued to work day and night over the Christmas period and will do so over cold winter spells.

“They will provide essential support tailored to each individual finding themselves living on the streets in Westminster.

Not only will this help them to access safe accommodation, but also essential mental health, drug and alcohol addiction services, work skills training and ultimately employment. Thus breaking the cycle of rough sleeping, offering long-term solutions rather than quick fixes.”

On trying to get off the streets for good, Mr Seagal says: “A lot of people can’t claim benefits because they don’t have a permanent address.

“At the hostel in Wandsworth there’s an outreach worker and they try to find somewhere for you to live and pay rent in.

“Now that I’m at this place, and have an address, I’m in touch with the JobCentre to get a claim for benefits. Hopefully they will do it and make sure everything is booked.”