Why homelessness is getting worse in the UK – and how you can help

The street remains home for far too many people – and the problem is getting worse. Michelle Langan, founder of The Paper Cup Project, reveals what and who can help

“This is the reason I’m on the streets,” says Sarah*, pointing to her swollen black eye. It’s 8pm in the centre of Liverpool. She rolls up her sleeve to show us more bruises snaking up her arm, and explains how she ended up sleeping rough.

When her boyfriend lost his temper, he would use his fists. After months of keeping her head down, she finally decided to leave, with nothing but the clothes she was wearing. “Even sleeping in a doorway is better than getting knocked around,” she says.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the number of people living on the streets has more than doubled since 2010, with a 73% increase over the past three years, hitting a record high. In London, homeless charity Crisis reported that 8,108 people were seen sleeping on the streets last year, compared to 3,673 in 2010.

It’s a steep enough rise that it can be seen with your own eyes. There are noticeably more people sleeping in doorways and under bridges, in parks and in tents that can’t be pegged down to the concrete.

This month, the government announced a £100million strategy to tackle homelessness. It may sound a lot, but when local authorities like Liverpool are already spending £11million a year on the problem, it’s a drop in the ocean.

There are many Sarahs on the streets of Liverpool – and many more across the UK. People become homeless for lots of different reasons and, every week, our volunteer outreach group will hear more stories when they head out at night.

A homeless woman near Trafalgar Square, London 

I started The Paper Cup Project (named after the cups you often see left out for coins, next to a rough sleeper’s feet) over two years ago. Having noticed more and more homeless people on the streets of my home city, Liverpool, I was curious about their lives, their stories, and wanted to help in a practical way. There were two of us to start with, now we’ve grown into a team of 30 core volunteers, with a huge list of people who want to offer their time.

Each week we hit the streets, wheeling trolleys with snacks, clothes and drinks. Most of our stock is donated by kind supporters, family, friends and local businesses, and we are lucky that restaurants and cafes help us with hot meals and sandwiches to distribute. We see around 40 people every time we go out, mostly familiar faces, but new people too.

We try to gain a sense of trust, to find out what the hidden issues are and, importantly, signpost people towards the right help. Sometimes a person won’t have eaten and will be glad of a sandwich but, other times, when someone hasn’t spoken to another human being all day, the floodgates open, and it can be emotional for everyone.

Vulnerable situation

It’s very hard to switch off after a night on duty. We head out at 7.30pm and keep going until we run out of supplies, normally after a few hours. People and their situations get inside your head.

One regular of ours, Karen*, a woman in her early 30s, is one of those people. I worry about her when I don’t see her. She has told us many times that she wishes she was dead. The last time we saw her, she was in floods of tears: one of her kids, who had been taken into care, had died of leukaemia. She said she felt helpless and all she wanted to do was to numb the pain.

This feeling is, of course, why drugs are such a huge issue. Research has shown that it takes just three weeks for someone sleeping rough to become ‘entrenched’ – that is, reach a point where it becomes difficult for them to imagine going back to a normal life. 

Michelle and her team on patrol in Liverpool 

Within that time, women on the street become targets for drug dealers. It starts with offering a free smoke, or a free hit, to numb the reality. Most addictions we see started on the streets – people become addicts after finding themselves homeless. Being drunk or high is often the only way some women can cope with the vulnerability of sleeping rough.

Karen told us she has had drunk men offering her cash for sex acts. She has had her clothes and sleeping bag stolen while she was asleep, and been beaten up while sleeping (she never reported it to the police because she doesn’t think she’ll be believed).

Recent research by Dispatches revealed that one in four homeless women have been assaulted over the past year, and three in 10 women have experienced sexual violence while homeless. Now Karen sleeps somewhere visible as it’s safer. She tried sleeping in a tent, but was constantly disturbed by kids shaking the frame, or drunks urinating on the canvas.

As a team, we don’t give out tents. A tent might offer protection from the elements, but it makes people a target for crime. In Manchester last year, a young homeless man was killed by arsonists who set fire to his tent.

The hidden homeless

We do meet women who get off the streets. One woman from Liverpool, who was in her 30s, was proud to show how she had saved up enough, over many, many months, to secure a deposit on a rental flat. As she showed us her cup full of loose change, we knew it must have taken a lot of willpower and a long time to earn what she needed, but she did, and we haven’t seen her since.

Another woman in her early 30s made the life-changing decision to split with her boyfriend. They had been together for a year, after meeting on the streets. She reached breaking point when she woke up one morning in the place where they slept, under a bridge, and found clumps of her hair scattered across the ground. She touched her head and realised he had cut her long hair off as she slept. It was an act of abuse – he knew he could hurt her and make her feel ugly. That same day, she walked away from him and went to seek help with local services. As a single woman, she moved higher up the priority list, and secured herself a flat.

Government statistics published in January say there are 4,751 people sleeping rough across the country on any given night. Crisis believes this figure is much higher, due to the issue of ‘the hidden homeless’. These are the people who sofa surf or keep themselves hidden away and disengaged from official services. Like Gemma*, in her late 20s, who had split with her boyfriend and was evicted as she wasn’t on the tenancy agreement.

She carried on with her job as normal, scared to tell her employer she was sleeping in a doorway. She had no idea where to access help, but luckily, we were able to assist her very quickly, and she got a flat within a week. 

A homeless woman (right) in Windsor on the day of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding 

Shelter for all

The rise in rough sleepers has been sharpest in the north-west, increasing by 39% since last year. The most common reasons we hear are benefit cuts or losing a job. Once people fall behind with their rent, it’s often too late to catch up. (It really is true that all of us are just a few pay packets away from losing everything: without a strong support network, it’s so easy to fall through the cracks.)

Relationship breakdown is also a common factor – people leaving a shared home with nowhere to go, or women fleeing domestic violence. The desperation a person must feel, to know that sleeping on a piece of cardboard is preferable to a violent partner.

I know first-hand that the government needs to do more to help rough sleepers, and to help right at the start of their journey into homelessness. In Liverpool, our team and other volunteers campaigned for a permanent shelter for rough sleepers, when three people died on the streets last winter. Our council reacted, and we are the first city in the UK to offer shelter to all, regardless of circumstances.

This is important, as not all homeless people can access help. The government’s ‘local connection’ rule means that all rough sleepers must have a connection to the city where they are staying, for instance having lived there for six months or more. That means that if someone from Liverpool went to London for work, then lost their job after a few months, they would be ineligible to access official support in London. 

Michelle hands out vital supplies to rough sleepers 

It’s the same with people who come to the UK and suddenly become homeless – they can’t access help. The UK government has a ‘hostile environment’ policy in place, which makes it as difficult as possible for immigrants to access support and welfare.

For our team, this is just the start. We have engaged local politicians to join us on our outreach and speak to rough sleepers to get to the root of how they can change things. Several councillors have joined us, as well as Metro Mayor for the city region, Steve Rotheram.

Homelessness isn’t simply about having no home – it’s about having the support and access to people who can give you the right help. Raising awareness is key, so the next time you pass a woman sitting in a doorway, ask her what she needs: a drink, sanitary protection, or just a chat? 

As one of our homeless friends told us, “When someone smiles at me or stops to talk, it makes me realise I’m not invisible.” We can all be that person who makes someone else feel less invisible.

How you can help 

A homeless woman photographed in London, October 2014

You might feel like there’s little you can do, but here are Michelle’s practical ways you can make a difference.

Stop for a chat

Homeless people often tell us that the worst thing about being on the streets is when people walk past and ignore them. It costs nothing to stop and have a chat. Offering someone a kind word and a cup of tea can make a real difference to their day. It’s mental health support at a very basic level. Often it’s the simplest things that mean the most.

Help with sanitary protection

For women on the street, periods are horrible. Using socks or tissues is often the only option. Groups like The Homeless Period or Bloody Good Period supply pads and tampons to vulnerable women and girls. Pick up an extra packet of tampons next time you go shopping.

Give treats for the dogs

For homeless women, especially, having a dog can provide not only company but also protection against unwanted attention. Organisations such as Dogs On The Streets and Care For The Paw offer outreach vet treatments, food and water to ensure any four-legged friends are kept in good health.

Make care packages

During the summer months, it’s important for homeless people to stay hydrated and protected from heat exhaustion. So why not make up a bag with a bottle of water, a travel-sized sunscreen and some snacks to give to that homeless person you always see on your way to work.

Volunteer your time

There are loads of volunteer groups across the country doing outreach to help those in need. You could collect donations, make sandwiches or offer more practical help on the ground. Check social media for local groups or Streets Kitchen on Twitter @streetskitchen.

Find out more about The Paper Cup Project here.

This article was first published in Stylist issue 430, 29 August 2018.

Images: Getty Images