Dezeen Magazine

"Most people are one pay cheque away from where I am" says homeless man who sleeps outside Habitat

London's rising homelessness problem is most visible on Tottenham Court Road, where a tent village springs up each night in front of furniture and lighting stores Habitat and Heal's. Dezeen speaks to two of the rough sleepers.

The first, Declan, is a builder and recovering drug addict. He lost his housing association flat a year ago. He recently had his false teeth stolen so has to eat through a straw, while one of his fingers was broken when a drunken youth stamped on his hand late one night.

"They came and stood on my hand and urinated on me," he said. "They ran off. They thought that was very funny."

"Most people are one pay cheque away from where I am," he added. "We're not all bad people. Just say hello. It's being recognised for the human beings we are. Because you walk by us and dismiss us."

Homelessness at Tottenham Court Road
Former soldier Luke is one of the many people sleeping rough on Tottenham Court Road

The second, Luke, is a former soldier who served in Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq but lost his home when his wife died of a brain haemorrhage. He has been homeless for 11 years. Last week he buried his companion, who died of hypothermia on Regent Street.

"I thought it would be better than this," said Luke.

He expects to spend Christmas in his tent. "Over Christmas I'll probably just… someone will walk by and give me a sandwich and a cup of tea hopefully!" he said. "I don't know."

Habitat and Heal's are a magnet for homeless people

Habitat and Heal's are landmark contemporary design stores that stand next to each other halfway up Tottenham Court Road,  a busy traffic artery that slices northwards between the well-heeled districts of Fitzrovia to the west and Bloomsbury to the east.

The road has long been home to furniture and homeware stores. Heal's has been here since 1818 and in its current building since 1917 while Habitat, founded in 1964 by Terence Conran, opened on the street in 1967.

Homelessness at Tottenham Court Road
The shop fronts of Habitat and Heal's provide shelter for people sleeping rough

Recently the stores have become a magnet for homeless people due to Habitat's recessed window niches, which offer shelter from the rain, and Heal's covered colonnade.

Two or three tents sit permanently outside Habitat, while each evening after Heal's closes, the colonnade fills up with street sleepers.

Homelessness on the rise in London

Homelessness in the capital has soared, with record numbers of rough sleepers reported. The sight of people sleeping rough is increasingly common across the city.

The latest figures show that 6,180 people are sleeping rough, in tents or on buses and trains in the capital. Across Britain 24,250 people face a homeless Christmas. Numbers in England have risen 120 per cent since 2012.

An investigation by the Guardian found that 440 homeless people have died on the streets in the past year, with figures doubling in the past five years. The crisis is blamed on cuts to services due to austerity and lack of affordable housing, plus a shortage of dedicated housing for the homeless.

Here are Declan and Luke's stories. The interviews have been edited.

Declan, 60, sleeps without a tent outside Habitat, on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Torrington Place. There is a tent either side of him, one occupied by a Big Issue seller called Mark and another by a man called Scouse. Dezeen spoke to him on a bitterly cold Wednesday lunchtime.

Declan: My name's Declan Warren. I'm 60 years of age. I'm from Dublin. I came to this country when I was 14 years of age. My family moved over here in the late 50s from Ireland to work. I've been in this country 46 years, sending money back to my family. As most Irish people did in those days, you helped your family out.

I've been on the street for a year. I came because I lost my flat through the government's new system. I've been on Tottenham Court Road for a year now. I'm not getting a lot of support from the government or from agencies. It's only other homeless people that help. Members of the public have been very kind to me. But a lot of members of the public, I'm non-existent. I sing that song "Walk On By."

That's what it feels like. And it's not very nice you know when you're down, and you feel that low, you feel like you're being trodden on. You're not getting no help. It's pushing me further and further. It's getting to the stage where I'm giving up, I'm giving up.

Marcus Fairs: You lost your flat a year ago?

Declan: That was a year ago, yeah yeah. It was a housing association flat, so if the rent wasn't paid for six weeks, and they could throw you out. Then I found out the reason that the housing association threw us out was you could get three times more rent private than you can on behalf of the government.

It's happening to young people. That's what gets me. So frustrated about it, right? My life's really over but these young kids, they deserve more. More help and more support and they're not getting it. I say to people, they need help. Because people are dying out here.

Marcus Fairs: Tell me what you were saying about the increase in people sleeping around here.

Declan: From last year to this year I'd say it was about 45 people on Tottenham Court Road. Now I'd say it's about 120. I know at least 90 people sleeping around here. You might not see them but if you come here at night you will see them. You'll see tents popping up everywhere - and we're in one of the richest parts of London.

Tents are popping up everywhere. And they're getting younger, that's what gets me. We're getting girls. Pregnant girls. Young men with mental health issues, alcoholism. A lot of mental health out here. The pressures.

Nobody's getting any help. The only help they're being offered is hostels where they're putting them all together. But there's no follow up in there. So if you put all these people in there together. Everyone that's gone in there I guarantee has deteriorated tenfold since they've gone in there with the drug addiction and the mental health. They're getting no support.

Homelessness at Tottenham Court Road
Declan estimates 120 people are sleeping rough on Tottenham Court Road

Marcus Fairs: The young people on the streets, are their stories similar to yours? Have they also been thrown out of their accommodation?

Declan: Some of them have. I'm not saying all. Some of them have been, and have just been left to their own devices. Some of the young ones have come out of prison and they've got no follow-up system at all. Some, the family have thrown them out. Some are soldiers who've come back from the war. It's all walks of life.

There's a lot of people out here who've got a lot of qualifications, they're quite intelligent. There's soldiers, lawyers, accountants, just because something happened in their family. A bereavement of their wife or something like that, it just took ahold of them. And they couldn't pay their mortgage and soon that they're on the street.

Marcus Fairs: In terms of possessions what have you got?

Declan: I've got two sleeping bags, an umbrella, a couple of pairs of socks, a couple of pairs of boxer shorts and the clothes I've got on my back. That's it.

Marcus Fairs: These have been given to you by people?

Declan: Yes. I can't have a shower every day. I have to use toilets on the street. If I want to wash I have to pay. How can I pay if I'm getting no benefits? I either have to beg of I have to go back to what I used to do, which is to rob, to thieve, to shoplift. I've been out of trouble sixteen years. I've been off drugs 16 years. They're pushing me back to that behaviour. I don't want to do that.

I don't want to beg so I just sit and through generosity people just come and give me stuff. I don't hassle. I've got not right to ask anybody for anything. We're not all bad on the street. We're there for a reason. It's not through choice. We're not earning £300 a day. If I was earning £300 a day I wouldn't be sitting here with a newspaper picking dog ends off the street.

Marcus Fairs: The police suggested this place?

Declan: Yes. I was sleeping outside the Futon Company for three months. Before that I was sleeping at the back of the cancer hospital for six months. That's where I got to know a lot of people. The police officer told me you can sleep outside Heal's or Habitat in the evening but you've got to put down your tent in the morning and you won't get hassled. I was told to come here by the police. I'd say 15 to 20 people sleep here. If you come here about half eight tonight you'll see at least 10 to 15 tents up here and people sleeping with no tents.

Marcus Fairs: There's three of you here outside Habitat. Did you all come at the same time, or you met here? How did that come about?

Declan: I met my friend Mark here over a year ago while being on the street, and we met Scouse about six or seven months ago. And the reason that we stick together is because it's hard out here, it's lonely out here. It can be violent out here. You sleep together, two or three, you look out for each other. We share everything together – he gets a bit of food, he passes some to me, we get clothes, we help each other. It's nice to know somebody has your back.

Marcus Fairs: I found out about the situation here from social media. People have been posting photos of tents beneath the Habitat sign. Did you know about that?

Declan: I don't have a phone. I'm computer illiterate. I'm one of those old people that don't have a clue. So it's just you telling me that. I don't mind people doing that. What I don't like is people taking pictures behind my back without asking. That's very intrusive. How would they like it? I've caught people doing that and it's not very nice.

Marcus Fairs: You got attacked?

Declan: When I was sleeping on my own I had all my possessions nicked. What little I had: my passport, my paperwork, my false teeth. A couple of pennies I had; the money people had given me. A couple of weeks ago I was attacked around Tesco on Goodge Street. I was attacked by five people. One came back to spit in my face. Called my mother a prostitute.

Two police officers were coming out of Tesco at the time and they saw all this happen and intervened. They could see I was very distressed. They calmed me down. They got rid of them. But that's what happens some time.

This happened two weeks ago [he holds up his hand to show two swollen fingers, which he says are broken]. I was sleeping here. Four people coming by at two o'clock in the morning, four young guys, they thought it was funny, an old man sleeping on the street. They came and stood on my hand and urinated on me. They ran off. They thought that was very funny. "He's an old man, he doesn't matter, he's not part of society. He's a down-and-out."

These are intelligent people and they're supposedly the future of our country. I know they're university students because I've seen them before. Some of the university students are very nice, they look after me.

When you walk past somebody on the street just think, that could be you. You're one pay cheque away. Most people are one pay cheque away from where I am. We're not all bad people. Sometimes it's not about the money. Just say hello. It's being recognised for the human beings we are. Because you walk by us and dismiss us.

We already feel bad for being here. And if you dismiss us when I say "have a nice evening" and you don't say "have a nice evening" back. But I guarantee if I had a suit on and I said "have a good evening" you'd say "have a good evening" back. They think they're above us. Just think about it, especially at this time of year.

That's all I can say, because I start getting angry.

Luke, 49, sleeps in a tent in front of Heal's. He spoke to Dezeen at 7pm on Sunday evening, after the store closed and as other homeless people emerged from the heavy rain to set up their tents and sleeping bags under the store's covered colonnade.

Luke: My name's Luke and I'm 49 years old. I've been sleeping at Heal's for about six months but prior to that I've been homeless for about 11 years now. The reason I became homeless is I was illegally evicted from a council house that was a statutory tenancy. They made me homeless due to the fact that I lost my wife of a brain haemorrhage and I had two lovely children to bring up on my own. I had to let them go to their maternal grandma.

I did 11 years with the Royal Artillery, British Army, in Salisbury, Lark Hill. I served in Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought it was going to be a little bit better than this. But the government has left me in so much dilemma, it's unbelievable.

I was travelling with a friend. Unfortunately he died of hypothermia. I met my friends here in the doorway so they said come and stay with them. So from then on I've been here.

Marcus Fairs: When you with your wife and kids, where were you living?

Luke: It was in Herefordshire and Cheltenham.

Marcus Fairs: You got evicted?

Luke: You can't even call it an eviction because the problem was they never served a court notice. Legally you need an eviction notice but this didn't go through. When I challenged it on my own - because nowadays you can't get any legal aid for housing - I couldn't afford to do it. So on that grounds I've been left here. It was a council tenancy. I came down to London.

Homelessness at Tottenham Court Road
Luke has been sleeping rough for around 11 years

Marcus Fairs: What kind of help do you get from the state?

Luke: Well I don't get any help basically. I'm not funded publicly. I haven't had any public funds since 2008. So basically what I do is I rely on places like the Salvation Army, which isn't open 24/7, it's open occasionally on a Monday afternoon; the American Church over the road, which is now closed through Christmas. I don't go to Crisis because it's too busy for me. So over Christmas I'll probably just… someone will walk by and give me a sandwich and a cup of tea hopefully! I don't know.

Marcus Fairs: How do you get by for money and food?

Luke: I don't get money really but food: I go to Pret a Manger, Caffè Nero and empty the bags. Or got to Eat and get their food out of their bags.

Marcus Fairs: The bins you mean?

Luke: Yes.

Marcus Fairs: Do you have contact with the council, street doctors or anything?

Luke: No. The council do know about it but they haven't done anything about it, you know. I'm not a priority in their eyes.

Marcus Fairs: You've been here six months did you say?

Luke: Yes.

Marcus Fairs: And have you noticed the number of rough sleepers…

Luke: Well it's increased by 120 per cent. In the last three or four months I think.

Marcus Fairs: That's a figure that's been in the media I think but have you noticed that yourself?

Luke: I have noticed that. I've seen a lot of different faces around.

Marcus Fairs: Do you have a plan? Do you have a hope for the future?

Luke: Well I'm a born-again Christian. I do have a plan. I'd like to join an abbey, a Cistercian abbey down in Leicestershire, but that could be classified as difficult getting in without an address. I don't want to lie to them, I want to be completely honest, because when you fill in the form to join any religious order, it has to be done from the heart and honest. So I'm even having difficulty with that. I've just got to wait really until I have some form of address to be able to continue with my application.

Therefore it's hard getting a job and it's hard getting anywhere to live.

Marcus Fairs: You said you were travelling with a friend who died of hypothermia?

Luke: He did indeed. I did his funeral on Friday at a community centre.

Marcus Fairs: That was recently?

Luke: He died last week. He was living on Regent Street by Pizza Express. We were by the All Souls Church. We were living in that little alcove there. I woke up and he was dead. They cordoned it off. And unfortunately that disturbed me.

Marcus Fairs: I'm not surprised. And that happened last week?

Luke: Last week. You know the outreach services that should have been providing a service for us all. Unfortunately just continued walking by this man. You know he had no sleeping bag, he had no covers. We had to feed him with the food that I got [unintelligible]. He was left mentally ill, distraught on the street. He had a worker who tried his best, but as a mental health worker he didn't have authority over housing. He would have to put [homeless charities] Thames Reach or St Mungo's onto. But they just weren't doing their job.

Marcus Fairs: How did you find this place?

Luke: Well Heal's, many years ago, not a lot of people know but [the owner's] son went missing from here. And a group of homeless people found him in Lincoln's Inn Fields and brought him to Whitfield Gardens across the road and reunited him with his father. And Heal's has been quite good to us since then and say they don't mind people staying in the doorway. They let us stay here until round about 7:30, 8:00am in the morning because then it opens and you have to have your tents down and then you just go on your walkabouts and your day. We come back here around about, in the weekdays you can't get down until 8 o'clock, but on Sundays it's pretty good, you can get down at six.

Marcus Fairs: How many people will there be? I notice more people are turning up.

Luke: It will get very busy. I'd say here there'll be another two, at this end, within the quiet community that don't leave any mess. We send the noisy ones to the back.

Marcus Fairs: So you self-organise a bit then?

Luke: Yes self-organise. We're all getting on in age. We just want a relaxing lifestyle so we can just get on with what we need to do in the daytime.

Marcus Fairs: They guy I spoke to the other day was 60. Are there younger people on the streets now?

Luke: I see younger people you know, but you have to remember that a lot of people at this time of year that do come on the streets are professional beggars. They're not here all year round. That's why services are so reluctant in doing much about anything nowadays as well as. If they give you a sleeping bag, two minutes later you'll find it down the road in a bin. If your sleeping bag gets nicked, it's almost impossible to get it replaced. If you leave your bag for a second or turn your head around, or you've got to go for a pee, your sleeping bag can be gone. I've had it twice this year.