Lord Roberts of Llandudno has long worked to improve the lives of people sleeping rough on the UK’s streets. Here he writes of one organisation helping the many Poles whose dream of a better life turned sour, and poses questions about all our responsibilities in dealing with the problem
Six years ago I strolled to Trafalgar Square and noticed a number of young men on the grass bank outside the National Gallery. Some were clearly new arrivals in London, recently off the bus from other parts of Europe, with fresh luggage, tidily dressed, possibly with dreams of seeking fresh opportunities in the UK. Sharing that patch of grass were others whose hopes had clearly been dashed and who looked as if their London experience had turned out to be more of a nightmare than the dream they’d first imagined.
The immediate question was how to prevent these new arrivals from sharing in the defeat of those with whom they shared the bank with them. How could we provide a safety net, how could we help them, help themselves? This problem encouraged the formation of a coordinating group, bringing various organisations tackling the issues of rough sleeping and homelessness. The Salvation Army, Thames Reach, St. Mungos, various local authorities and like-minded organisations met together many times and were able to find ways of helping some of those in greatest need.
However the problem of rough sleeping was, and is, particularly evident in the London area. If someone’s homeless, it was (and remains) possible to provide food at different locations, although this can require those looking for help to often travel some distance. There are also extensive clothing centres and shower facilities but the main problem lay in finding safe places for sleeping. Beds were a problem then, and remain a problem today.
Hostels, when accommodation is available, sometimes encounter problems with drug-taking, alcoholism and mental health concerns. This deters a large number of homeless people who instead turn to sheltering in shop doorways. Attempts to solve these ‘normal’ problems persist and we owe a great debt to a group of wonderful people organising help.
BARKA UK is the name of a largely Polish help foundation, inspirationally led by Ewa Sadowska (CEO), whose parents established the movement in Poznan in late 1989. Thousands of needy people have been helped here in the UK or upon return to Poland, where farms, workshops, printing centres and even a purpose-built holiday resort have enabled them to find their feet and resume a life of hope. It has been my privilege to cooperate with BARKA and witness their life-transforming work; I hope to continue to work with them in future.
More recently, early this December, I crossed Oxford Street in central London, passing through the Marble Arch underground tunnel. In the tunnel were more than 20 absolutely destitute Romanians (babes-in-arms, disabled and elderly people) attempting to rest on flattened cardboard boxes. This would be their overnight accommodation.
The immediate follow-up has been a very positive with a parliamentary meeting attended by the Metropolitan Police Service, the Romanian Embassy, Romanian police officers, Crisis and others. We meet again in the New Year. But a pressing question remains: what can we do to tackle the inter-connected problems of poverty, cultural chasms and criminality? To what extent do we have we a responsibility towards them?
Am I my brother’s keeper?
Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.