Cold and lonely: The tragedy of sleeping rough during a pandemic

Sat outside a closed shop on the Horsefair in Bristol city centre, Philip looks cold.

Resting his arm on his green rucksack, the 49-year-old is wearing a hat, three layers of clothing and has a blanket over his legs.

With a bony face and wrinkled skin, Philip looks tired but the first thing he shows me is his anger.

Because of coronavirus, rough sleepers were being offered places in hotels and B&Bs, he tells me, before adding: “It has come to show there are houses for everyone.

“Why did they have to wait for a deadly virus to happen?

“They offered me somewhere in Brislington before Christmas but that is too far – I need to go down to Arnos Vale every day to pick up my methadone from a chemist.

“They are helpful, but in the wrong way.”

Philip is right in that the pandemic has put the spotlight on getting rough sleepers into accommodation and, for instance, in Bristol around 300 rough sleepers were moved into hotels or hostels in the first lockdown.

At the time, the government was saying 90 per cent of homeless in the country had been offered accommodation since the start of the pandemic and there was also talk about the “unprecedented” opportunity the lockdown had given charities to build relationships with people on the streets.

But, after figures from the ONS last month showed homeless people in Bristol are dying at nearly four times the national rate, I wanted to speak to people in our city who are sleeping rough not only in winter, but also during a pandemic.

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Philip said he had been sleeping rough, on and off, for the past 11 years
(Image: John Myers)

“I am making a tenner a day, if I am lucky,” Philip continued. “People look at you like you are diseased at the moment – they are scared of coming into contact with you.

“No one stops to have a chat, they don’t want to know.”

Philip said that, before Christmas, he was receiving a lot of donations from members of the public – in cash, which he used towards a new sleeping bag, and also items of clothing such as socks or gloves.

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However, he said that it was a lot harder to make some money begging at the moment, adding that in three hours he had only made £2.

Most people give him food these days, he said, as they are worried money would be used on drugs.

“I am nearly 50, I do not care about dying or not,” he continued. “What have I got?

“I do not want another 50 years.

“It is horrible to be sleeping rough right now – it is lonely.

“The cold brings the loneliness, it is terrible.”

Philip – who has been sleeping rough, on and off, for the past 11 years – said that after being homeless for so long he had got used to not having a house, but that one of the difficulties that come with sleeping rough at this time of the year was keeping dry.

He added that, once you are wet, it was hard to get dry and that trying to sleep in wet clothes was not nice.

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Philip (left) sat outside a closed shop on the Horsefair
(Image: John Myers)

Philip said that another problem the lockdown had brought for rough sleepers was finding somewhere to go to the toilet or have a wash.

With all the shops and restaurants closed, the bus station is one of the few places that is still open, he added.

However, he said staff there are getting fed up with it as, while the majority of rough sleepers just go there to have a wash, some people are using it as a place to inject drugs.

Having not taken heroin for two years after being addicted to it for 25 years, the 49-year-old then said he was glad not to be taking drugs anymore as he wouldn’t be able afford them.

Philip claimed that a lot of rough sleepers were having to turn to shoplifting at the moment as it was much harder to beg and went on to say that a lot of people do not care if they get caught and end up in prison as that would mean a roof over their head and some food.

Philip – who is sleeping rough in the city centre at the moment – said he hadn’t heard of any rough sleepers dying of coronavirus but that he had heard of drug-related deaths.

“Spice is the main problem, it is worse than heroin,” he continued. “Rough sleepers are not worried about covid.

“Drugs are a big problem in the rough sleeper community.

“People are worried about getting money for drugs, rather than covid.

“If they get covid, they will feel s**t – but if they don’t get money for drugs, they will feel s**t too.”

Philip – who spent nine years in Taunton before moving to Bristol a year ago – said he enjoyed watching the world go by, but that there weren’t many people out and about at the moment.

He added that the police weren’t giving him any problems, but that being homeless was exhausting.

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A tent in Castle Park earlier this week
(Image: John Myers)

“Being homeless tires out and it makes you feel like s**t,” he continued. “It is starting to take its toll on me because of my age.

“I think they should be concentrating on getting the older generation off the streets – there is a lot of them in Bristol and their immune system is not great.”

Sat at the top of Union Street, opposite Castle Park, Anthony is another rough sleeper happy to talk to us.

Wearing a stripy black and yellow face covering while we speak, he said had been sleeping rough for about 15 months before claiming he hadn’t received any support and that he hadn’t been offered anywhere to stay.

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Anthony said he had been sleeping rough for about 15 months
(Image: John Myers)

The 50-year-old – who found himself on the streets after a relationship breakdown – said he was sleeping under a bridge.

He said it was hard at the moment because of the lockdown and because not as many people were carrying cash around now.

“That is my favourite spot,” he said. “It is warm and it is not windy – it is alright.

“It is only me, I like my own space.

“I am a bit depressed about being on the streets – I like my creature comforts and miss them.”

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Anthony said he was originally from Manchester, but that he ended up in Bristol because he has family in the city.

He added he would rather be in a homeless shelter than sleeping rough but that, ideally, he would like to have his own flat.

“I do not worry about coronavirus – if you are going to die, you are going to die,” he said.

What the council says

Bristol City Council said in a statement: “Since the onset of the pandemic and following government support, we have helped hundreds of people rough sleeping or homeless to move into emergency accommodation, and continue to take every opportunity to reach out to help those who need it most.

“The pandemic has also accelerated city-wide ambitions to end rough sleeping in the city and we remain committed to securing suitable, affordable move-on accommodation to avoid seeing people return to rough sleeping.

“Whilst we have had success in helping those who want it, to move into more permanent accommodation, we must remember that homelessness is complex, and not everyone wants the support offered. We review plans weekly and have options to leave the streets for everyone sleeping rough.

“All available accommodation options are being explored and we are prioritising those in most need, particularly the clinically vulnerable. We are also joining local partners to seek further information from Government about longer-term rough sleeping support.

“With the threat of COVID-19 persisting, we’re taking steps to protect those needing help by offering self-contained overnight spaces in services and accommodation across the city, where appropriate. As the pandemic has closed many spaces where rough sleepers would often go for basic facilities, we are exploring alternative options with local partners.”

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