Forty-eight hours in the life of Tower Hamlets’s homeless

Numbers of rough sleepers in Tower Hamlets are soaring Pic: Thomas Quine

The numbers of rough sleepers in Tower Hamlets are on the rise – again. Recent figures showed a rise of almost 70% since last year, with a spokesperson from The Whitechapel Mission describing the numbers as “detrimental for our community”.

EastLondonLines went to speak to three rough sleepers to ask them about their lives over the last 48 hours.

“The homeless don’t think about sleeping the way that everyone else does. We sleep when we are so exhausted that we can’t stay awake anymore, whether that’s midday or during the night. And that’s because we never know where we can sleep in safety and comfort”, said Allen Rooney, age 44, who has been sleeping rough for 23 years.

Rooney, talking about where he had slept in the last 48 hours, added: “I live quite an invisible life on these streets even though I have lived on them for 23 years. Most people don’t see people like me, and no one really knows where we access basic services ”.

Rooney’s story is echoed throughout the borough and is becoming increasingly common. A recent report from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) confirms that an increase of roughly 70% has occurred in Tower Hamlets in the amount of persons seen sleeping rough compared to the same period last year, with more than a doubling of new rough sleepers (persons registered only once by CHAIN). 

Currently, these numbers mean that 1 in 41 Tower Hamlets citizens are homeless, leaving the borough with the ninth highest number of rough sleepers out of all 32 London boroughs.

In Tower Hamlets, the reasons for homelessness have remained quite constant in the past 10 years, although the numbers have risen: most common is problems in personal relationships, second most is mental health issues and third most is problems with housing requirements, such as paying a higher rent over time. 

Maxwell Emmanuel, 48, has been homeless on and off his whole life. He spoke to EastLondonLines about his time on the streets in Tower Hamlets: “I have always lived like this, and I know no other way. The people living on the street get me, they are my family. I don’t trust all the people that just walk past us without even looking us in the eyes”. Derrick Walsh, 47, sitting next to him, added: “We got to know each other in a children’s home when we were young, and we have known each other since then. We never had a chance to live a normal life, but we have each other’s back”.

When Rooney, Emmanuel, and Walsh were asked about their life the past 48 hours, they opened up about the following details of where they had slept, eaten, spent their waking hours, and gone to the toilet, as seen on the map below:

The life of Emmanuel, Rooney and Walsh throughout the last 48 hours Emmanuel = red, Rooney = green, Walsh = blue.

While Emmanuel had a secured space at a hostel in the borough during both nights because of a medical condition, Rooney and Walsh had slept rough. “It’s been so cold these past few weeks that I have had to sleep in my friend’s tent most nights” said Rooney. 

“The overnight shelters are often full, especially now that it’s cold. There just isn’t enough space for the homeless in Tower Hamlets” said Walsh. 

While the homeless shelters experience overwhelming numbers of homeless people wanting to access their services, a big issue remains that many shelters don’t offer any support to those using drugs or alcohol. With 43% of new rough sleepers reporting that they use either drugs or alcohol, either as a main reason they became homeless or as a way to cope with other issues they face, this leaves a large group with no help.

When asked about loos, Emmanuel holds up a large plastic bottle, with his urine. “I used to use the public restrooms around Tube stations, but I am often escorted out by staff if I come in now” he explained. “I don’t have a lot of options, and I also don’t want to ‘go’ in front of anyone’s private property”.

“What I have eaten in the past 48 hours…” said Walsh, taking a moment to think. “I eat breakfast at the Whitechapel Mission most days, and otherwise I’ve eaten a slice of cake, chicken nuggets, and a few carrot sticks. All of it has been from people that have walked past me by Liverpool Street”. 

A spokesperson from the Whitechapel Mission said: “the centre never turns anyone away. We serve breakfast everyday, and most people that attend are regulars”.

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