Trafalgar Square at night is silent and almost empty, the usual crowds of noisy tourists visiting London replaced by clusters of homeless people, who wait on the steps of the National Gallery for food to be distributed. But these are not all long-term rough sleepers: central London is seeing a surge of newly unemployed restaurant and pub workers forced to sleep on the streets because they can no longer afford to pay rent.
Rough sleepers like Martin, a recently-sacked chef from Poland, are finding life under lockdown increasingly difficult and dangerous. “London has become so strange and sad. The only people who are out look like they are looking for drugs. There are a lot of crazy people with knives,” he said.
The city’s day centres have been closed to prevent the transmission of the virus, leaving the homeless with no place to shower or wash their clothes, no toilets and nowhere to access regular food supplies.
The disappearance of commuters means that no one is offering money to the destitute, at a time when most soup kitchens and food banks are not operating, and when the closure of cafes has meant the homeless no longer receive unsold sandwiches at the end of the day. It has been left to a few small groups of volunteers to provide thousands of meals a week.
Martin, 27, worked his way up through London’s kitchens, starting as a porter when he arrived in the UK eight years ago to his most recent job as chef de partie at a fashionable restaurant in east London. He was abruptly sacked shortly before the lockdown began, and had to leave the room he was renting because he had no savings. He has been sleeping on a bit of pavement near Charing Cross station for six weeks.
He said he has been told five or six times by outreach workers that someone will call him to organise a room in a hotel. “I waited for a call. I’m still waiting. Maybe the hotels are full,” he said. In the last couple of days his phone battery has in any case gone dead, and with cafes closed there is nowhere to charge it. He finds sleeping on the street unsafe and alarming.
Brian Whiting, a volunteer with the organisation Under One Sky, which started nightly food deliveries at the end of March, said he was disturbed by the number of newly homeless ex-hotel and restaurant staff. “One of the really distressing new things is the hospitality homeless. We’re seeing so many people who were working in kitchens, hotels and pubs until a few weeks ago. They’re so obviously ill-equipped to be out there. The long-term rough sleepers know how it works, but for them it’s very new. They look shell-shocked.”
“I’m still hanging on to my sanity, just,” a man from South Africa, who had been working for five years as a waiter in London, said from the office doorstep where he has slept for the past three weeks since losing his job. He laughed when the volunteer asked him if he was eligible for furlough payments, and said the job came through an agency, and there had been no mention of financial support. Most of those pushed into homelessness had insecure jobs and precarious living arrangements, and no ability to navigate the benefits system or wait for payments.
The charity Under One Sky provides food for rough sleepers, cooked by the Punjab restaurant in Covent Garden.
The charity Under One Sky provides food for rough sleepers, cooked by the Punjab restaurant in Covent Garden. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian
On the other side of the street, Whiting was dismayed to see Katarina, 34, a recently-sacked waitress from Italy, preparing to sleep again in the doorway of a cocktail bar. “It’s nice to see you, but I wish you weren’t here,” he said, giving food to her. He was concerned about her deteriorating mental health, and suspected she had started taking class A drugs. He has reported her to Streetlink, a charity that connects rough sleepers to support services, a few times, but she remains in the same spot. “She wants to be helped. I don’t understand why she hasn’t been picked up.”
Aside from the practical difficulties, everyone remarks on the disconcerting silence of the capital.
All the normal sounds and smells are absent – the salty, greasy smells from fast food restaurants, the wafts of coffee from snack bars, stale beer odours rising up from sticky pavements, the stench of rotting food seeping out from kitchen dustbins, even the trails of diesel fumes, have all gone.