On a Tuesday afternoon on Bromley High Street, in London’s most south-eastern borough, It doesn’t come as a surprise to witness many of the homeless begging for the spare change of uncaring and often oblivious by-passers. Yet, this wasn’t the case just a few years ago: homelessness in Bromley is on the increase, in accordance with the trend seen across the majority of Greater London. Indeed, the rate of this increase across the capital is staggering; according to the Greater London Authority’s Chain report, 8,855 people were seen sleeping rough in the city during 2018-19, an increase of 1,371 from the previous year.
At the time Dawn became homeless, she was one of 8,096 people sleeping rough across the year in London. She’d been living in Hampshire and had just been refused the renewal of her lease because her landlady had alternative wishes for the property. With Dawn losing the custody of her son, and her daughter being given up for adoption, things all became too much. Dawn found herself dealing with a mental breakdown, following which she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
“I’d come to London because I was really not well, mentally. I was scared of everything, scared of going out, scared of doing things. With that breakdown, it was the scariest place I’ve ever been in, in my life.”
With few options, Dawn asked the local council whether she would be entitled to the same accommodation options in London as she was in Hampshire. They replied that she would, but did not inform her that she would have to wait for the bailiffs to arrive before leaving in order to be classified as being “unintentionally homeless” when she then pursued accommodation options.
“When I went to (the council in London), they said, ‘No, you’ve made yourself intentionally homeless (because you didn’t wait for the bailiffs in Hampshire)’. Then they wouldn’t help me. They stitched me up. I didn’t know what to do, I still don’t know what to do.”
Dawn was temporarily staying at an ex-boyfriend’s house as she attempted to deal with the tail-end of her mental breakdown but was forced onto the streets after falling out with him one day, which she said made her feel “terrified.” “I think the only thing that kept me from doing that [committing suicide] was my kids. Even though I ain’t got my children, they was the only thing I think that was keeping me a little bit sane. If it weren’t for them, I think I would have ended up killing myself, I really would have.”
However, Dawn has kept her homelessness a secret from her five children. Even her 15-year-old son, the only family member with whom she is in regular contact with, is not aware of her living situation. Dawn makes a special effort to speak to him at least once or twice a week, visiting the local library to contact him via the internet.
“He’d just worry. He suffers from depression and I don’t want to worry him. I don’t want them knowing. And I can’t even dry my hair. I ain’t got money or nowhere to do that.”
The homelessness crisis isn’t entirely evident to all who pass by. 74-year-old Patricia, who has lived in the area all her life, argues that, whilst there are more homeless people now than there used to be, the government is doing enough to help.
“That girl there,” she says, pointing to Dawn. “She must have a family somewhere. Why don’t her family support her? Maybe she’s done something horrible they don’t agree with.”
For Dawn, family life before homelessness wasn’t simple either. As a child, Dawn was raised by her grandfather, a man she says was “everything” to her.
“I didn’t know what a mum was till I was about six. My mum, when she took us back, saw me as the black sheep. I wasn’t part of the family. I left home at 13 to live with my boyfriend. She pushed me out to move in with her man, when I was 13 and he was 21. That’s bad, isn’t it?”
Around the time her mum reappeared in her life, Dawn also began to be sexually abused by her cousin, from the ages of six to eleven.
“It’s hard to trust,” she says of the impact it has had on her other relationships, including with her son’s father, who she says physically and emotionally abused her.
“But I thought that (physical abuse) messed something up in my life, and I wouldn’t let him ruin any more of it.”
Dawn is relatively new to the Bromley area, having come to the borough around Christmas 2018 to join her boyfriend, Kenneth, who is also homeless. She says she has to avoid certain accommodation options available due to a recent influx of alcoholics and drug addicts. She has previously suffered from addiction to heroin and Valium herself, as has Kenneth, who currently struggles with an addiction to the prescription drugs he has been using to treat his back problem.
Whenever they can get the money together, Dawn and Kenneth stay in a hostel, where they are able to change and shower – however this is difficult, as it depends on how much money they can make on the streets. Dawn says they don’t always beg, if they find somewhere to stay, like “a car that’s had its wheels taken off,” they’ll spend some time there for a bit of respite.
“There’s so much of it that people switch off,” says Kenneth. “People get immune and they get numb to that ‘Can you spare any change?’ question. People get numb to it, if you hear it too much. And you become invisible, you know what I mean?”
However, Kenneth takes a slightly different approach – he doesn’t say anything to try and stop passers-by, but just thanks those who do stop to make a donation.
“People can see for themselves my situation and if they want to help, then I’m happy about that, but if they don’t, then I understand that too.”
He acknowledges that living on the streets has become a way of life for him, describing how he has become accustomed to it over time.
“I think the worst thing about it is that it gets easier. In the beginning it’s hard because you don’t really know what to do or where to go. When you try to find a place or find somewhere to live, you try everywhere you can and you get nothing back. You get really disillusioned with it. And you give up, basically.”
Before Kenneth became homeless, he was living in a room in Bromley, and was relying on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which Dawn also claimed.
“The benefits changed from ESA to Universal Credit and there was a long gap of maybe 2 months or something before they pay you. In that gap, I couldn’t pay my rent at all.”
After staying with friends for a few nights, he took to the streets after realising he couldn’t keep staying with them in the long-term.
“I stayed out the first night and it wasn’t too bad because it was kind of warm, and I’ve kind of been out here ever since.”
Like Dawn, Kenneth has also tried various avenues for help, and says he is unable to get out of his situation because he is not a priority.
“Everywhere I go, I try to find accommodation or whatever. I don’t have much luck. They seem to think I’m not a priority, but I think I am a priority. I just feel like everywhere, they’re trying to push you onto someone else. You’re just ticking their boxes. It’s more about them than it is about me.”
Under previous UK legislation, priority groups such as pregnant women, people with dependent children and “vulnerable” individuals must be provided with emergency housing – something non-priority cases like Kenneth were not entitled to. This changed with the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act in 2018, which obliged councils to provide assistance to all the homeless. In addition to this, the government provided almost £73 million to help councils carry this out– although think tank the New Local Government Authority found that almost two-thirds of councils thought this was not enough.
Whilst such legislation provides an important step forward, there are still several root causes of homelessness which remain at play. The independent organisation Homeless Impact recently highlighted a number of these, such as the lack of social and affordable housing, and the freezing of the Local Housing Allowance until 2020, due to the fact that some areas do not have available properties which fall within the remit of the allowance provided. Austerity policies under the Conservative government, which cut council funding sharply and forced them to redistribute funds, have long been blamed by activists for the increase in homelessness. Even the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire admitted in December 2018 that the government needed to ask itself “some very hard questions” about the policy, which had also led to numerous benefit cuts.
Although Kenneth has previously worked as a fitness trainer and plasterer, he is unable to get a job as he never knows where he is going to be from one day to the next, and also suffers from mental health problems in addition to his back issues. Following one particularly bad breakdown, he was sectioned for a few months but was then released, returning straight back onto the streets.
“They decided there was nothing wrong with me, but somebody must have decided there was in the beginning since they got me to go there. With me and my situation, and you haven’t got say family or support, nobody’s going to ask questions. You’re not going to be missed. That’s the scary part of it.”
However, despite the lack of support, he says he can “see the best in people” in Bromley. Just then, a woman stops him on her way to the gym to ask if he would like a cup of tea, and he nods, beamingly. Minutes later, she returns out of breath with a hot cup of tea.
“You get people like that, really good people. She’ll buy me food, or a drink, a good woman. And you get a lot of that here.”
Dawn agrees, fretting over whether she remembered to say thank you to a lady who stopped to give her some change a few minutes ago.
Kenneth says that, despite receiving kindness from many, he has often been on the receiving end of orchestrated attacks. “When I was sleeping I’ve been urinated on. Somebody set my tent on fire. It just went up like a bonfire. When I was in the tent, I could hear them and the next thing you know, I heard like a lighter and the corner of my tent went up. Obviously, I jumped out. And they found it funny. Four of them they were, and they found it funny.”
He says the reason he’s suffered such attacks is because being homeless makes you an easy target, as you are cut off from society and have nobody to turn to for help.
“I find that really unacceptable. I’m already on the floor, I’m already in the gutter as it is. And I feel like anyone picking on me, it’s the lowest you can get, really.”
A few metres away from Dawn and Kenneth, in the doorway of Tesco, sits 46-year-old Jimmy Smith, who has been homeless for 4 years. His life on the streets began after a stint in prison for “bad things,” and he had nowhere to go when he came out.
“I’ve been a very violent man. I am what I look like. But I’m too old for all that now, so I just sit here and try and get my little bit of money together.”
Jimmy manages to get into hostel once or twice a week, just like Dawn and Kenneth.
“It was very difficult starting life on the streets. Trusting society is very difficult. I had to sit and beg. I’ve got to get at least a tenner tonight to get into a hostel. I’ve got about £9 to go, £9.20.”However, Jimmy thinks most people are not very forthcoming with donations at the moment. “Most people don’t even look at me,” he says, echoing Kenneth’s statement of invisibility on the streets.
For 18-year-old student, Ovis Mahmood, who stops to give Dawn some spare change, the increase in the number of homeless people is shocking but not surprising, and he says he “never used to see [homeless people].”
“[The increase] is probably happening in all the London boroughs,” he adds.
He’s not entirely wrong. Bromley recorded the fourth-lowest number of rough sleepers for an outer London borough, with 47 people documented in the Chain report for 2018-19. This is a number that has remained fairly constant in recent years. Although there are many reasons for homelessness, such as relationship breakdowns and major health issues. After the rolling out of austerity in 2010, 5,678 rough sleepers were tracked by charity Crisis in 2011-12. Back then, Bromley had less than half its current number of rough sleepers, with only twenty-two. This staggering increase holds true for most outer London boroughs, with Barnet recording a 2018-19 figure more than four times its 2011-12 number.
“I don’t think I’m getting a fair deal,” says Kenneth. “It’s the government’s fault. Because no one should be homeless really, not when there’s so many places empty.”
Dawn agrees, saying that she “ain’t got a clue” why homelessness is increasing, but unequivocally affirms that the government is not doing enough.
“No, definitely not. I don’t think they ever have, really. They need to pull their finger out a bit more.”
However, she and Kenneth do their best to remain positive, with both affirming that they do see a future which does not involve rough sleeping. Kenneth says he is going to get in touch with Adult Welfare, as he has recently been given their contact number, and Dawn says that she will try to get an advocate to help her with her benefits claim.
“I feel like I’m sitting here waiting for an opportunity to come,” says Kenneth. “And I think one will come. And if it does, obviously I’m going to take it.”
“I just want to get my old life back,” says Dawn, who is also a self-confessed foodie and says she would love to visit India again one day, having been there about ten years ago.
“I just want to go back to Hampshire and be with my son. If I get off the streets, I’ll have my life better than I ever had it before. It will happen.”
Names have been changed in this article to protect the individuals’ identities.