In the six years following the expansion of the European Union in May 2004, large numbers of people moved to Peterborough from primarily former Eastern Bloc nations. Most found jobs and homes but, by early 2009, around 60 were destitute and sleeping rough and we had to tackle the problem.
The programme to help these people was also responding to the concerns of established residents, whose local parkland was blighted by illicit encampments.
Following an investigation and a ministerial visit, DCLG engaged social care charity CRI to assist destitute rough-sleepers and 34 people were ‘re-connected’ with their home countries between September 2009 and March 2010. However, more help was needed.
Beginning in April 2010, the UK Border Agency supported a pilot project in Peterborough focusing on solving the challenges faced by rough-sleepers and communities affected by their presence.
Subsisting on charitable hand-outs, rough-sleepers invariably descend into a spiral of poor health, drink or drug dependency, exploitation by unscrupulous employers, danger of physical harm and criminal activity such as shoplifting and begging.
They cease to be work-ready and well-meaning groups that offer them hand-outs of tents, food and clothing only help perpetuate their deplorable condition. At the same time, local residents feel intimidated and excluded from open spaces where rough-sleepers are camping and feel threatened when accosted by drunks or beggars on the streets.
UK Border Agency officers and I systematically visited all known rough-sleeper sites and spoke to each individual, using interpreters where necessary. They were asked to produce identity documents and evidence that they were working.
Those who could not demonstrate that they were working to support themselves were issued with a ‘Minded to remove’ letter and instructed to report to a police station to prove they were supporting themselves. Those who were not supporting themselves were informed that they could be removed within 28 days.
These people had come to Britain with a dream of making a new life. Despite their desperate circumstances, some were reluctant to return home in poverty because of the shame of failure. Providing them with clean clothes, a couple of nights’ accommodation, a haircut, an opportunity to phone relatives and making travel arrangements from the airport to their home town helped make the decision easier to accept.
Between April and December 2010 nine found work and accommodation, 52 voluntarily returned to their home countries and, following formal serving of notices, 18 were removed by UK Border Agency.
At the last count, there were still 14 people from east European countries rough-sleeping in Peterborough, with fewer examples from Poland and more from Lithuania and Latvia. But the message is gradually getting through.
Peterborough City Council’s rough sleeper outreach officer Sarah Hebblethwaite