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Churches step in as Britain's recovery bypasses the homeless

Although Britain is recovering from recession, the homeless population has grown for three straight years. Welfare cuts leave few options. 

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A homeless man has a nap after chaining his bicycle loaded with his possessions to a post on Pall Mall in London in October. Homelessness has been on the rise in Britain since 2010, in part due to government cuts to housing aid, prompting churches to step in to try and fill the gap.

Toby Melville/Reuters/File

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On a black, wet December night, several dozen men stand outside St. Columba's, a church in one of London's swankiest neighborhoods, waiting for it to open as a night shelter.

One of them, a sharply dressed, well-spoken former salesman, became homeless a little over a year ago after losing his job and his home. Born in Trinidad, the man has spent much of his working life in Britain, but not enough for him to qualify for any state assistance. Now he earns a few dollars a week for food by teaching martial arts part time and sleeps in churches, sometimes on hard wooden pews.

"The worse thing about being in this situation after years of a normal life is not having any money because with no money you have no choices," says the man, who did not want to give his name in case anyone from his old life recognizes him. "But I have to believe that things will get better."

Homelessness is on the rise in Britain, as cuts to welfare and an economic downturn from which much of the rest of the country is only now recovering trickle down to the most vulnerable. Immigration, especially from Eastern European countries, has also played a part as poorer newcomers seeking work find themselves priced out of housing.

At the same time, welfare cuts designed to reduce one of Europe’s biggest budget deficits have led to a reduction in emergency services for the homeless. The number of emergency hostels in England has dropped by 8 percent since November 2011, essentially the same period in which homelessness beganto climb.

So an increasing number of churches are stepping in to fill the gap. Though there is no figure for the number of churches that now double up as night shelters in the winter, Alistair Murray, director of projects at Housing Justice, a Christian homeless charity, says that the number has more than doubled in the last few years.

Others guess that the increase is bigger than that, as new networks of churches spring up every year. Many operate a rotation of night openings through the winter so that every night at least one church in the area is open.

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More 'rough sleepers'

After falling for most of the last decade, the number of people sleeping on the street – or "sleeping rough" – in Britain has increased for three years in a row. Street homelessness is up this year by 6 percent in England and 13 percent in London, according to government figures. Statutory homelessness – the state of living in temporary accommodation like longer-term hostels – has risen 34 percent since the year 2010. 

According to Crisis, Britain’s biggest street-homelessness organization, 113,260 people in England approached their councils – local government authorities –  as homeless last year, an 11 percent increase over two years.

In some ways, this increase is surprising. Britain is showing strong signs of recovery from its biggest recession in recent times, between 2008 and 2009, and new figures released Wednesday by the Office for National Statistics reported that the number of unemployed nationwide had fallen to 7.4 percent, or around 2.39 million, in the three months ending in October. That's the lowest it has been since early 2009.

A combination of other factors, however, has made rising homelessness inevitable, charities say. The recession has been followed by hard cuts to government services pushed by the Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron, including help to those with mental illness and addictions who are at heightened risk of homelessness.

Housing charities say that cuts to housing benefits, especially those introduced this year, have hit the poorest hard.

“It has taken a while for the combination of the recession and welfare cuts to trickle down and hit people but it has started to happen now,” says Graham Bovpitt, an expert in social policy at Nottingham Trent University. “There are a lot more people who have come to the end of their resources.”

Duncan Shrubsole, director of policy at Crisis, says that these problems are exacerbated by a housing shortage nationwide. Wages have not kept pace as housing prices have rocketed.

“The big underlying reason for all this is that we are not building enough houses,” he says. 

A new report, published Monday by the New Economics Foundation think tank, found that British workers on low and middle incomes were experiencing the biggest drop in their living standards since records began in the mid-19th century. The report blamed pay freezes and below-inflation increases, which meant that wages lagged behind prices.

“A typical situation is that tenants get to the end of a lease and when they come to sign a new one, the landlord says he is putting up the rent. And they cannot afford it,” Mr. Shrubsole says.

Homebuyers could suffer too, if low interest rates start to rise, making it hard for people to pay their mortgages, he warns. Cuts to legal aid – government-subsidized legal advice for those who cannot afford it – makes it more likely that people will lose their homes, he says.

No room

Not only has the number of emergency beds in shelters fallen, but councils have tightened their rules on who may access them. Councils tend to stipulate, for example, that they will only support people that do not have a connection to the local area.

That is one reason why there are a high number of immigrants sleeping in churches, which offer shelter on the basis of need alone. Of the 36 people sleeping in St. Columbus on a recent December night, 19 – more than half – were Eastern Europeans. Shrubsole says that among the homeless population in London, Eastern Europeans constitute around one-third.

“The councils’ criteria for giving people a bed – you have to be local, and entitled to benefits – rules quite a few people out and leaves them sleeping rough,” Mr. Bovpitt says.

The high number of Eastern Europeans, many of whom do not speak fluent English, can be challenging to the volunteers at church night shelters, and has fueled resentment in some places. Some parishioners call Polish immigrants sleeping in their churches "free-loading."  Many allege that they are workers who have made a calculated decision to forgo rent, sleeping rough in the summer and on pews in the winter, so that they can save all their earnings.

“Some also say [the church shelter system] is perpetuating lives on the street,” says Peter Dunning, project manager of a network of churches that was set up last year in Tunbridge Wells, a town southeast of London. “They say, if they weren’t in the church, they would be housed somewhere else. But no, they wouldn’t – there is nowhere else.”

 'No typical homeless person'

Generally, churches say they have had no problem recruiting the high number of volunteers required to run a night shelter operation. Heather Farwell, a museum worker who volunteers at St. Columba's every Sunday night, says her chief discovery is that “there is no typical homeless person. There’s every story you can imagine here.”

Nearby, Tatiana, a middle-aged Lithuanian and one of four women to be spending the night at the church, is drinking a bowl of hot vegetable soup.

She has been homeless since November, she says, when her landlord threw her out. Weeks of illness had left her unable to do her cleaning job and she had missed the rent.

Three friends let her go to their houses during the day to shower and sleep, she says. But at night there was nowhere she could go, so she slept in the doorway of a library.

“When it is very cold sleep is impossible,” she says. “Tonight I can sleep.”

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