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‘Is there really a choice?’: An evening spent with KCL On the Streets and a conversation with rough sleepers in London

Photography lead, Emma Carmichael, joined KCL On the Streets to investigate the problem of homelessness around campus in response to Suella Braverman’s comments calling it a “lifestyle choice”.

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman was recently in the headlines for her article in The Times, in which she argued that the police showed bias and “played favourites” towards pro-Palestinian protesters. This was the final straw for Rishi Sunak – who sacked her from office a few days later on 13 November. But this was not Braverman’s first brush with controversy in November.

Following her proposal for new laws restricting the use of tents in the UK, she suggested that many rough sleepers were on the streets because of a “lifestyle choice”. As usual, this declaration showed a profound lack of touch with reality. However, this controversy does have the merit of raising awareness around the homelessness issue.

The former Home Secretary’s plan included a new civil offence to fine charities for handing out tents to rough sleepers in order to discourage this type of support; describing these last-resort measures as a “nuisance” and citing a concern over the obstruction of shops and doorways. Suella Braverman added on X, formerly known as Twitter: “We cannot allow our streets to be taken by rows of tents, occupied by people, many of them from abroad”. Several Tory MPs have condemned these statements; however, Rishi Sunak did not rule out the proposal as a part of the Criminal Justice Bill. Still, her plan was not mentioned in the latest King’s Speech.

At King’s College London, the society KCL On The Streets (KCLOTS) knows that the 4,068 rough sleepers in London are entering the toughest part of the year and has been supporting the homeless community through student-led action. The society organises weekly outreaches, where they talk to people on the streets and organise fundraising projects. They have a direct impact on the university’s local community and work tirelessly to help those in need. To find out more, I joined them during one of their outreaches.

KCLOTS volunteers meeting at the Shack before an outreach. Bush House, King’s College London. 07/11/2023. Photo by Emma Carmichael.

The volunteers of KCLOTS meet multiple times a week. During outreaches, students walk around the campus’ neighbouring streets in small groups, near Strand, Holborn and Waterloo. They offer a hot drink and, more importantly, a conversation to those who need it most.

While heading out onto the darkening streets, the volunteers explain their motivations. For Kenza, treasurer of the society “listening and understanding the stories of these people is important”. What pushed Saskia, a first-year politics student, to join, is seeing so many rough sleepers on the streets on her way to campus every day. These outreaches are a way to tackle loneliness, which addresses the most reported support need before drug use and alcohol abuse among rough sleepers: mental health.

Kenza and Saskia carrying hot water, tea and coffee. Strand, London. 07/11/2023. Photo by Emma Carmichael.

On the street, eye contact and a welcoming smile are the sparks to light up a discussion. If the person is open to it, the students will then them make a drink whilst engaging in small talk. Whilst we crouch down to pour the tea, a homeless woman introduces us to her dogs. She seems to recognise the volunteers from previous outreaches. After an open and friendly introduction, we touch upon Suella Braverman’s declaration, which she was aware of.

The former Home Secretary stated that rough sleeping was a life choice made by people who refused help. How does that make you feel?

“Look at how many people are on the streets. Is there really a choice? I don’t have help, that’s it. That’s all I get. No one ever asks me if I need anything. I cannot even sleep in a church because I have my dogs.”

The woman posing for a portrait. 07/11/2023. Courtesy of Photography Lead Emma Carmichael.

For her, “the government don’t care, they are not looking out for people like us”. She adds, in her view, “the only time they care is when there are a lot of tourists in London.” She continues by claiming, “they put people of colour in hotels, because it is not a good look apparently, too many migrants in the street. But they never tell them to stay”.

The woman was referring to migrant and asylum-seeker hotels that have opened in the UK. The Home Office has an obligation to house asylum seekers, who would otherwise be destitute while their claims are being processed. However, on 31 October, the government announced the closure of 50 out of the 400 asylum hotels, adding: “it will not stop there”. Additionally, recent changes have been made to the so-called ‘move-on’ period in the UK. People now get a significantly shorter notice time to move out of their accommodation after being guaranteed refugee status. Over 140 NGOs have addressed an open letter to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, warning that these changes will lead to “destitution and homelessness”. For the British Red Cross, “more than 50,000 refugees could be made homeless by the end of the year” and calls for the government to take “urgent steps to support them”. According to the charity, some people receive only seven days’ notice to find a job and a home. It is simply not enough. These policies led by Suella Braverman are paradoxical: suppressing tents will not make rough sleepers disappear, however, shortening the move-on period and closing these hotels is forcing more people onto the streets and feeding the vicious cycle of homelessness.

Tents contrasting with workspaces. Strand, London. 07/11/2023. Photo by Emma Carmichael.

KCLOTS’s volunteers are also very critical of the Suella Braverman’s declarations. When I ask Shraddha, who has been involved in the society for a year, to comment on the statement, she instantly replies, “isn’t it because there is a lack of trust in the system itself?” She continues, “most of the people from abroad don’t even speak English, how are they supposed to access the information? Obviously, it is not a choice”. Saskia underlines that broader socio-economic factors need to be considered when making these claims. Kenza also importantly points out that rough sleepers are a small yet highly visible part of homelessness. She explains, “there is a lot of hidden homelessness. People sleep on their friend’s couch without even knowing they could get help”. In January 2023, according to Shelter, 271,000 people were homeless in the UK (1 in 208 people), yet only 2,400 of them were rough sleepers. Most of them are living in hostels or cramped temporary accommodations.

Saskia and Kenza. Strand, London. 07/11/2023. Photo by Emma Carmichael.

We end our outreach inside London Bridge station. At the heart of the storm of workers going home from the office there was Norman, a retired soldier from Glasgow. Warming up his hands on the cup, he notes in a thick Glaswegian accent, “it’s colder today”. He shares his sentiments on the former Home Secretary’s declaration.

“Of course, it is not a choice. I stick my two fingers up to it”, he says while putting up the V-sign.

“It is devastating to be homeless; I feel embarrassed and humiliated. I am by myself so I can go anywhere, but for women and people with families, it is insufferable”.

Did you ever get any support from the government?

“I worked from when I was a 17-year-old to my 50s. I paid my emergency taxes. I was a soldier. People work their whole lives for the government and then receive no help. I am 55, getting to my 60s, realising that there is nothing for me, it is devastating”.

Norman is mainly concerned about others before himself. Multiple times, he repeats that his situation is complicated, but that vulnerable people have it much harder than him. Behind his deeply lined and drawn face, there is a sharp look, filled with kindness and intelligence, that really sticks with me. The two people I met on the streets that night struck me as being extremely articulate and politicised. The homeless woman had a natural sense of humour which made the discussion flow. Norman thanked me for writing an article on the topic.

Suella Braverman’s statement shocked the public opinion and rightfully revolted homelessness charities. It confirmed what many had already criticised: homeless people remain unseen and misunderstood by the government. Meeting rough sleepers and students on the streets, I witnessed a unique form of humanity. Crouched down, in the middle of a city that never stops, we have an everyday conversation, at eye level with someone usually unnoticed. Every story and glance is different, but one thing remains: this situation is not a “lifestyle choice”.

The end of the year is an important time for charities. With Christmas coming around, many campaigns are put in place to help those in need. From November onwards, KCLOTS is launching ‘Project Santa’ where, instead of regular hot drinks, they will be handing out special Christmas bags with socks, gloves, first aid kits and more. Outreaches and delivery sessions will be held from 4 December during the last week of teaching. On a national scale, HSBC UK has launched a ‘No Fixed Address Service’, allowing people without a fixed home to open a bank account. Like every year, many charities are also organising a Christmas appeal. The Salvation Army is calling for donations while Crisis is offering volunteering opportunities to provide warmth, companionship, and support to vulnerable people during the holiday season. December is an extremely hard time for rough sleepers. However, it is a time of unity, giving some hope to those people living on the street and offering a helping hand to face the horrid situation they definitely did not choose.

You can find out more information on how to get involved with KCL On The Streets on their Instagram account.

If you are in a housing crisis, facing short or long-term homelessness, seek help by contacting Shelter’s free housing helpline : 0808 8000 4444 or by visiting their website.

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