London / AFP
Every night Andrew, Cristian and Shafiqul visit a church in the wealthy central London district of Westminster to share a meal and get a place for the night sleeping off the cold and wet streets.
Currently homeless, the three are among 15 people given places to sleep by six churches and a synagogue, alternating on a daily schedule, as part of the “Westminster Winter Night Shelter” programme.
The network has grown to encompass more than 90 such shelters across Britain, including 24 in London, compared to just a handful in the early 2000s.
“There’s 50 percent more people sleeping rough now than there were five years ago in London,” said Jon Kuhrt, executive director of social work at the West London Mission, a Methodist group that helps the homeless in central London.
There were 7,581 homeless people in the British capital in 2014-2015, compared to 3,673 in 2009-2010, according to official estimates.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen more and more ordinary people on the street,” said Peter Mwaniki, a coordinator at the Mission
“That’s been the biggest shock to the system. The churches have stepped in where the government was not able or not willing to do it,” he said.
Kuhrt added: “Rents are ridiculously high in London and we have a real problem with affordable
“When that’s combined with relationship breakdown, with refugees, with people coming from Eastern Europe for work, it puts a huge amount of pressure on all the systems and more and more people end up sleeping rough.”
Poverty rates have remained broadly stable during years of budget austerity under Prime Minister David Cameron’s governments, even though economic growth and employment levels have recovered.
The use of food banks has risen sharply, with one of the main charity providers, the Trussell Trust, reporting a 19 percent increase between 2014 and 2015.
The shelters are particularly suitable for people who find themselves unexpectedly homeless, without suffering from problems like addiction, and just need temporary support to allow them to find housing and, for those without employment already, a job.
Shafiqul, 37, lived in Westminster for 15 years before he found himself on the streets just before Christmas, following an argument with his wife.
A British citizen originally from Bangladesh, Shafiqul was able to join the shelter in mid-January.
“Everyone is friendly and helping. It helps quite a lot,” Shafiqul said. He hopes to be able to be placed in social housing so that he can resume his work as a taxi driver.
Each evening, volunteers greet “guests” with a hot drink and cake, chat and play board games, before preparing a meal and eating together.
The next morning, a new team organises breakfast.
“The volunteers are trying to create an atmosphere of community, of hospitality of non-professional nature.
“It gives people encouragement, friendship, support. That is their strength,” said Alastair Murray, director of projects at Housing Justice, the charity that oversees most of the shelters organised by churches in Britain.
“These are angels, only they don’t have wings,” said Cristian, 31, a Romanian-Hungarian who arrived in London in November 2015 in the hopes of changing his life. For now, he has taught himself English and aspires to open a home for the elderly.
“It’s very well organised,” said Andrew, 26, who was thrown out of the family home by his sister after his father died. He then stayed with his brother but was kicked out again after six months.
Andrew is now being trained at the giant Crossrail project — a high-speed railway that will link London east to west.
Between December 2014 and March 2015 the Westminster Winter Night Shelter helped 35 people off the street.
This year, seven new churches including Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral joined the programme to extend it to run from October to May.