The streets around Victoria Coach Station are street-sleeper city. The more you look, the more you see. As the light dims, first one or two, then up to two dozen, begin to make their rounds. Foraging for cardboard boxes, they are men like Santa, who, once he has enough – four boxes will do – will bed down on marble, curling up under the columned portico of a locked office.
Santa’s head is round, with clear eyes and a thick grey beard that has bristled white on the streets. He is cold, and keeps repeating himself: “The worst thing that happened… It was a few weeks ago. These men… They came and they started shaking me going, ‘Hey, what’s up, mate… Hey, why are you sleeping, mate… Hey, do you want to dance, mate.’ They were drunk English.”
Santa spends the days wandering round Victoria picking up cigarette butts. He is Polish and in his mid fifties; Santa is what the English on the street call him. He is lucky. He tells me he sleeps in a German army-surplus parka he was given by some praying people who walk around at night.
Come night, come his fears. Will the Roma that sleep in tunnels under the Hyde Park Corner steal his parka? If it rains, will an addict come trembling to the portico and smoke his spice there? Sometimes, he dreams of his family: what are they doing? Would they ever take him back?
For a London street sleeper, Santa’s story is pretty conventional. He was a miner in southern Poland. For decades, he worked in the shafts. He had two children and a wife; he always drank. Then, in his early fifties, he lost his job.
There were layoffs, mines were closed; the economy was changing. Things broke down at home. It only cost £50 to get to London, so Santa tried his luck. Many young men were doing the same thing.
The city was bigger than he expected and much less British: full of Poles, Romanians, Indians, Nigerians and people he couldn’t even place. With his 20 words of English, he traipsed around, in and out of Polski Skleps, Polish shops, looking for work. In one after another they told him that to get a proper job, he needed documents – a National Insurance number – and to get these documents he needed an address. But to get an address, he needed money.
There was one way out of the arrivals trap, other Poles told him: work for cash in hand. He found a job working for an Albanian at a carwash in Kings Cross for a few quid an hour with a promise that he would be paid at the end of the month. The money was just enough to cover a bed in a shared room and bus tickets to the car wash and back. Payday came. He asked and asked again until the boss beat him up and told him to get lost. No money meant he had no room. No room meant that he was on the street.
It was only days before he lost control of his drinking completely. When I met him, the only information he was getting about how to get off the street was from the occasional Polish outreach workers, sometimes from the Catholic Church. London’s homeless system, with its signposts and lore, was not something he could translate. Whole blanks appeared as he tried to account for his weeks, months, on the street. He hardly understood the place.
There are thousands of men like Santa on the streets of London, humiliated men in hiding from their families, unable to bear the shame that London turned out to be like this.
Black market victims
You cannot walk for long around London at night without seeing street sleepers. There are now more than 7,500 people sleeping rough on the capital’s streets and they have spread out widely from the historic old clusters around the Strand. The numbers sleeping rough have more than doubled since 2010; they are up 16 per cent in the capital over the last year alone.
Santa’s story is pretty typical: being Polish, for a start. Only 43 per cent of those rough sleeping in the capital in 2014–15 were British citizens. Some 36 per cent were from Eastern Europe. Squats and doorsteps tend to divide into “English” and “Polish” zones.
I met Santa while sleeping rough around Hyde Park Corner, researching my book This Is London. It is a London that councils and City Hall prefer to ignore. Sleeping rough with Roma beggars, touting with Baltic labourers for work cash-in-hand and living in Romanian doss-houses, I found a city where health and safety laws were seen as something “for the English”, and not enforced.
A homeless woman at Hyde Park Corner, 2003. Image: Getty.
This was a London where the minimum wage did not exist. You haggled for the going wage, paid in cash. Insurance and contracts were often non-existent. Most labourers at one point or another found themselves touting for work outside one of the hardware stores dotted along the A406. Overcrowding was endemic. Labourers were sleeping ten to a room and two to a bed in the crammed doss-houses.
Many people in Britain appear to believe that Polish and Romanian migrants are jumping onto buses in Warsaw and Bucharest armed with a complete mastery of our benefit systems.
What I found on the streets and the building sites of London was quite different. Most migrant labourers were only dimly aware of their rights. The need for insurance was little understood. Most had no idea what the minimum wage was. For those touting for work, desperation trumped everything.
Most of the stories I heard on the streets followed a similar pattern to the one Santa told: men who had run out of luck back home, who tried their luck on the night bus to London and were quickly confronted by their lack of planning. Needing National Insurance IDs and a cripplingly expensive bed, they turned to their only option, cash-in-hand work. And, typically, this is where things went wrong.
Sleeping rough, I met dozens and dozens of Eastern Europeans who were victims of bandit employers, almost always in construction. Working on trust, without contracts, many of them had been swindled out of their wages. Others had fallen off the scaffolds and found themselves injured. Without insurance and unable to keep earning, they were the invisible victims of Britain’s unenforced regulations.
People this desperate are vulnerable to being preyed upon by criminals. London is teeming with Romanian and Polish gangs looking for muscle: toughs for burglary or for smash-and-grab raids on the bottles of Jack Daniels in Tesco; youngsters to whom they can teach pick-pocketing and the finer points of cashpoint fraud. The more desperate you are, the more willing to let yourself be roped in. These are the stories that tumble out in London’s police stations.
Laws, however good they are on statute, are only as effective as their enforcement. Despite stringent regulations, only three firms have been prosecuted for paying less than the minimum wage over the last two and a half years. Even worse, in the last five years London councils have made only six prosecutions for overcrowding. Why?
There is a lack of information available to those inhabiting Eastern European London. Polish, Romanian and Lithuanian websites buzz with adverts for work as labourers, waitresses and forklift truck drivers, yet they are also filled with panicked threads. “Accident at work – what to do?” “Not paid again – help!” A litany of posts from people desperate to know how London works.
Councils say they do not have the resources to crack down on overcrowding and illegal touting spots, even when they are known to them. Local authority budgets and the scope for investigation and enforcement were cut back dramatically during David Cameron’s government.
Policing and inspection need to be expanded to reach into the swelling Eastern European underworld. But many local authority executives are frightened that if they start closing down the doss-houses – with nowhere else for hard-pressed migrants to go – they may push even more onto the street and into petty crime.
As a result, a Dickensian black market thrives, a conveyor belt to the streets. Each year there is a service at St Martin-in-the-Fields for those who died on the streets of London. Last year, the names of 194 people were read out: men who were run over by minicabs that never stopped; who fell asleep sick on the pavement and never woke up. Dozens were men like Santa.
This is an extract from London Essays, a journal published by Centre for London and supported by Capital and Counties Properties PLC. The full collection of essays are available here.