NINE in ten people sleeping rough in England have experienced violence or abuse on the street, half have been physically attacked and one in five had someone urinate on or next to them.
“The first thing that jumped into my mind was this: if I survive this night then perhaps, I would survive another night, and another night, and another night.” This was the sobering testimony of one person interviewed by Crisis. “I couldn’t sleep, and to this very day I still can’t sleep properly living rough”.
The stark findings have been shared by the homelessness charity Crisis as it publishes new research examining the physical and emotional impacts of life on the streets. The figures come from one of the most detailed surveys of people’s experiences while sleeping rough undertaken in England in recent years. More than 150 people completed the survey, all having slept rough within the last two years. Half of all respondents were either sleeping rough at the time of the survey or had done so in the previous week.
Violence, dehumanising verbal abuse, robbery, and harassment were unacceptably common experiences among those surveyed. Three quarters (75 per cent) had been robbed and more than half (53 per cent) had had items – including bricks and beer cans – thrown at them. In the vast majority of cases (70 per cent), the perpetrator of the last incident experienced by respondents was a member of the public.
One participant reported having the contents of a bin tipped over them by a member of the public. A second recalled having a brick thrown at them. Another had a knife held to their throat while what remained of their possessions was forcefully taken from them.
Another respondent recalled: “It was a horrible feeling. Horrible feeling. You’ve got nowhere to use the bathroom, nowhere to shower, nowhere to wash, nowhere to change your clothes. Horrible.”
The figures make for difficult reading and reveal the brutal and inescapable reality faced by people who have no other option but to sleep rough. Being subject to violence and abuse, Crisis says, is a further punishment for the thousands of people already forced to live without the safety and security of a home.
The most recent government statistics estimate there were more than 3,000 people sleeping rough on any given night in Autumn 2022, a 14 per cent increase in the last two years and a staggering 74 per cent increase since 2010. Experts expect upcoming statistics to show these figures rising further.
Crisis is releasing the findings as it prepares to open the doors of its annual Christmas services this week, offering support, dignity, advice and – vitally – kindness to people experiencing the worst forms of homelessness.
This year the charity will be supporting more than 590 people who would otherwise be sleeping rough across London. Guests at three hotels across the capital will be given bespoke one-to-one support, their own room, and access to health and wellbeing services to help them leave homelessness behind for good. Across Britain, the charity will be supporting more than 7,000 people over this period.
The pressures forcing people into homelessness are wide-ranging, but financial challenges are a common cause throughout. More than half (52 per cent) of those surveyed had experienced issues with the cost of living prior to becoming homeless, having been unable to afford basics like food and heating. Nearly half (47 per cent) had issues with the cost of rent.
The charity says the findings are symptomatic of a housing and homelessness system that has been neglected by successive governments for far too long. The chronic shortage of truly affordable housing, compounded by the three-year freeze on housing benefit while private rents soared, have hit those on lowest incomes the hardest. People forced to sleep rough are the most visible, most acute, symptom of a systemic crisis.
But this need not be the case, Crisis says. The help provided by the charity shows that in the right setting and with the right support, many people can be supported off the streets. Last year, two-thirds of the guests who stayed in Crisis’ longer-stay hotel in London, which hosted guests for five weeks, did not return to the streets. And a month later, 85 per cent of guests were not seen sleeping rough in the city.
Coupled with the relief provided by Crisis’ Christmas services, the charity is calling on the UK government to bring forward the uprating of housing benefit, so that it comes into effect immediately, rather than in April 2024 as planned, allowing those on the lowest incomes to better afford rental properties. This, the charity says, will prevent more people from being pushed into homelessness this winter.
Manoel, who is 44, came to Britain after he fled Brazil to escape persecution due to his sexuality. He became homeless four years ago after he was a victim of modern slavery and was forced to move between rough sleeping and sofa surfing, a period he says was incredibly traumatic. One night, when he was sleeping rough, he had a bottle thrown at him by a passer-by which gashed his face and left him needing hospital treatment.
Speaking about his experiences, Manoel said: “The way people treated me when I was rough sleeping was so awful. One night, someone threw a bottle of vodka at me which gashed my eyebrow and has left me with a scar. I still see the effects of living on the streets every time I look in the mirror.
“I want people to realise how difficult and how scary it is sleeping rough. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t switch off. Every sound had me on edge, feeling like someone was going to attack me. Getting support from Crisis and other charities… It saved my life. I’m lucky that I’m not on the streets now. No-one should have to experience that.”
Matt Downie, Chief Executive of Crisis, said: “None of us should have to endure the hardship and inhumanity of rough sleeping, yet far too many people are living in fear and being subjected to abuse and harassment simply because they do not have a home.
“It was only three years ago during the pandemic that we made tremendous efforts to bring people off the streets. Now, with cost of living pressures acute and rents still unaffordable for so many of us, we are seeing ever-increasing numbers of people being pushed into homelessness, many ending up sleeping rough.
“But we don’t have to stand for this. Crisis at Christmas has been offering support, shelter and kindness to people sleeping rough for more than 50 years. We’ve seen how giving people their own room, nourishing food and access to healthcare and specialist support at Christmas can be the first step towards a life beyond homelessness.
“This year, we’re expecting high demand for our services, and we need the help of the public. Your donations can be the difference for someone sleeping rough, showing them that someone does care and that, in a difficult time, Britain is a country that comes together to put an arm around those in need.”
* Source: Crisis