27 January 2021

It goes without saying that the pandemic has not been easy for any of us.

But while most Londoners followed lockdown instructions to stay at home, many didn't have that luxury.

In fact, for London 's homeless population, life got even tougher than before.

The lifelines many relied on, like coffee shops for WiFi to look for work, soup kitchens for a hot meal, and busy streets for small acts of kindness from the public all disappeared overnight as lockdown came into force.

"Before the pandemic hit in March we had seen the highest numbers of people rough sleeping in the capital since figures started being recorded - a 21 per cent increase on the previous year," said Ruth Jacob, senior policy officer at homelessness charity Crisis.

"We have seen an extraordinary effort from the Government's 'Everyone In' initiative to get people safely into accommodation during the pandemic, as well as efforts from the Mayor's Office, local authorities and charities in London, so huge numbers of people have been helped into safe accommodation.

"But we have continued to see more people being pushed into homelessness, and I think that's really down to the wider impact of the pandemic as people have lost their jobs, lost income."

Ruth said that there are huge structural problems in London which hinder the ending of homelessness in the capital, not least the high cost of living.

However, as two former rough sleepers told MyLondon, the use of hotels as short term accommodation for homeless people throughout the pandemic has given many the boost they need to get off the streets for good.

Joshua's story

*Joshua is a pseudonym, as he did not wish to be named.

Joshua, 42, originally came from a stable background and upbringing, working in compliance for a decade leading up to the 2008 financial crash.

He told MyLondon that the financial crash was a low point in his life, but things got lower from then. In 2016, Joshua hit rock bottom - debts, failed businesses and strained family relationships were taking their toll.

He checked into a hotel, keen to leave the family environment hoping things might improve, but they didn't.

Joshua said: "T o be more resourceful with my savings, I traded a comfortable life for the side streets of Charing Cross. A world away from the life I once had."

The winter of 2016 was tough. Bitterly cold, fearing for his safety and at a loss for what else to do, one night Joshua boarded a night bus to Heathrow Airport hoping he would find some shelter.

He said: "It's practically the only place that's open 24 hours.

"For a while, it became a routine to sleep on the plastic chairs at the terminal, pretending to be a passenger leaving early morning.

"That became a habit for three and a half years."

Joshua would use the WiFi in coffee shops and hotel lobbies to look for work every day before returning to the airport at night.

"I became rudderless, lacking clear sense, moving from terminal to terminal, hotel lobby to hotel lobby and, at times, stretching out time on bus routes," he said.

In March 2020, when lockdown was announced, the places Joshua used every day were closing. He never used to spend the daytimes in the airport, but one day he decided he had no other choice but to spend the day in the terminal waiting room.

Almost by fate, on that day there was an outreach team in the airport who were approaching people they knew were homeless.

Joshua said: "I noticed they were going round, I approached them, explained my situation, and they referred me to the Travelodge hotel in Aldgate.

"When I got to the Travelodge I met the team from St Mungo's [homeless charity]. St Mungo's have been a welcome blessing, and the comfort of the hotel was a relief.

"After a long time I was free of one less worry.

"Not that there weren't other concerns: I was troubled by my lack of clothes or how long the accommodation would be for. But these too were taken care off by the lovely staff, a wide range of clothes provided along with other essentials, and assurance that they will do what they can to find a suitable future place."

Joshua went from surviving off one meal a day while living in the airport to being served three meals a day at the hotel. He praised Red Radish catering company, which usually caters for touring crews for festivals and film sets, but had been working with St Mungo's and the Mayor of London on their hotels for the homeless project during the coronavirus crisis.

Joshua spent April to August of 2020 living at the hotel, where he had the luxury of books, TV, paints and other sources of entertainment. He also got into running and cycling, enjoying the quiet London streets at the peak of lockdown.

Staying in the hotel meant Joshua had an address to use to apply for jobs and other forms of support. Thanks to a glowing reference from St Mungo's, he was able to get a job at Ealing Hospital as an assistant in radiology. He was also able to secure a set of keys to a place he can call his own.

He said: "The carriage on the underground is probably bigger, but whichever way you look at it, it's a place and a stable roof over me to rebuild myself.

"It means so much - that one of the first acts I carried out was to walk around, give thanks to the walls, roof, and decorations. I paused to give gratitude to the safety this new place will provide.

"The speed at which my life has changed since the pandemic feels so surreal. The shift from stagnation to flow is an amazing feeling to have. The team at St Mungo's see beyond someone's homeless status, taking notice, providing plenty of support and giving hope."

Joshua has his current, privately-rented home on a year-long contract with the option to renew. His job offers career progression, and after a year he could become a radiologist technician.

In many ways, the pandemic itself led directly to Joshua getting the support he needed to get off the streets

"Sometimes in chaos, opportunity arises," he said.

Roland's story

Roland, 34, now lives in a council-funded hostel in Southall, West London. Just a few months ago he was sleeping rough on the streets in the middle of a global pandemic.

Roland came to London at the end of the summer after losing his place in accommodation in Cardiff. He admitted he was breaking lockdown rules in order to see his then-partner, which cost him his home and job as a cleaner in the building he lived in.

He then tried to find accommodation that would house both him and his partner, but found none available for couples, forcing them both onto the streets.

They were living on the streets of Cardiff for months, surviving solely on Roland's then-partner's Universal Credit payment of £380 per month.

Roland could not claim Universal Credit himself, as there had been complications with his application and he had lost some essential ID pertaining to his immigration status while moving through the homelessness system.

This meant that when he came to London after breaking up with his partner - a break-up caused by the strain of trying to survive a pandemic on the streets - he was left with no income whatsoever.

Roland said: "It was really hard. I went to food banks and soup kitchens, but I'd say about 90 per cent of them are shut at the moment.

"You have to walk a long, long distance from your sleeping spot to the place. But when you get to the food bank there's another problem - even if you get quite a lot of food, they give you enough for a week, where do you put it?

"You have to carry it, because if you hide it someone will find it, either other homeless people or cleaners who think it is just rubbish and put it in the bin.

"It puts you in a mindset just to survive."

Roland said that there was a period where he was unable to shower for two months, because the usual places he would use to maintain personal hygiene were closed for the lockdown.

Similarly, he struggled to find places to charge his phone - a lifeline when you're living on the streets.

Prior to lockdown, libraries were a haven for phone charging and access to the internet to look for work and shelter. He tried everything from random plugs in shopping centres to sockets in churches, gradually getting moved on from one place to the next by security guards.

Eventually, Roland's luck began to turn. The first beacon of hope was a hotel room offered over Christmas, as part of an initiative by Crisis.

Crisis senior policy officer, Ruth Jacob, said: "Every year Crisis runs a huge 'Crisis at Christmas' operation across London that helps people who are rough sleeping with a place to stay for usually a week over Christmas, but this year it was extended because of the situation.

"It helps to make sure that people have a safe and happy Christmas, but also to link people to ongoing services that can help make sure they can move on to settled accommodation.

"We were able to provide two weeks of hotel accommodation, access to healthcare, and crucially access to advice."

This help from Crisis helped Roland get off the streets for two weeks at Christmas.

He said: "It was really useful, there were many benefits to it.

"The place itself was lovely - it was located in Crystal Palace, but it was great to have somewhere to go back to and to keep out of the cold.

"It was great to have clothing, that was nice, and they would bring us any necessities we needed."

After the two weeks in the hotel, Roland had to sleep rough for another couple of days. But then, in perfect timing, he was finally granted settled status after living in the UK for 12 years since moving from his home country of Hungary.

This meant his lost identification was no longer a problem, as his settled status meant a proof letter could be generated for any authority in lieu of ID. Within a couple of days, the council got in touch to offer him a place to stay in Southall.

Roland now has a place to live where he can finally get a replacement passport and start applying for jobs. He has his eye on some recruitment agencies, as he says the demand for warehouse workers is huge.

Simply having a roof over his head means he can work on staying off the streets and rebuilding his life.

Source: MyLondon