One hundred homeless people spent Christmas Eve afternoon at City Hall in London, where the mayor, Sadiq Khan, said society was letting down those without homes.
Amid the festive cheer of the first ever such event – where Khan helped serve a three-course lunch of smoked salmon, roast turkey and pear tart before many took to karaoke – people spoke of their struggles accessing services and the omnipresence of drugs, as well as opportunities to gamble, on the streets.
“You’re made to scream for help and unless you do that it doesn’t come,” said Scott, a 45-year-old who slept in a park for a year. “You have to fight tooth and nail for what you are entitled to.”
Now, however, he has his own flat – after being helped by the charity St Mungo’s. “I was lucky,” he said. “It takes most people about four years, if at all. We definitely need more social homes built. They want to move you on from the hostels but they can’t.”
Cherelle, 30, explained how she was evicted from her housing association home for falling into rent arrears while she was sectioned, and lived in a cupboard at a housing block before being forced to move on.
“There was no safety net, being mentally ill and addicted to drugs, it’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “You’re always fighting a battle. You’ve got to be at rock bottom before someone says here’s a hand. Rather than being able to ask for help before you get to that point.”
She is now living in one of the St Mungo’s accommodation centres, along with many others of those at the event – none of whom is still sleeping rough. However, some have had to move to other boroughs away from their support networks to get a roof over their head.
Almost 9,000 people were seen sleeping rough in London by outreach workers last year, more than double the number in 2010-11, according to the mayor’s office.
Rough sleeping has also more than doubled across England and Wales over the last decade, and there is growing public concern. Churches, libraries and other buildings in Bradford, Newcastle upon Tyne, Derry and elsewhere were opened on Tuesday to provide Christmas dinners for homeless people.
Next to the River Thames at City Hall, while people watched the seasonal film Elf and played Jenga, Khan called on the prime minister, Boris Johnson, to work with him to end rough sleeping.
“I don’t pretend today is going to solve all these problems, it’s about giving some vulnerable Londoners a special experience at this time of year to raise awareness about these issues, and to give people hope that we can end rough sleeping once and for all,” he told the Guardian.
The mayor said he has persuaded councils to provide shelter to all rough sleepers when temperatures approach zero in any borough in London.
Downing Street has announced an extra £63m in funds to help tackle homelessness, but Labour said it was “too little, too late”.
Khan blamed a lack of social housing, an unfit-for-purpose private rental market and social care cuts as well as the “disastrous” universal credit system for helping to drive increased homelessness.
“I say merry Christmas to Boris Johnson, congratulations on the general election victory, but let’s work together to solve this,” he said. “I think we are judged as a society by how we treat the most vulnerable and we’re letting them down.”