Soup kitchens in city centres are facing an unprecedented demand for food hand-outs despite sub-zero temperatures and emergency lockdown measures to stem the homelessness crisis.
Alarming pictures taken on Monday in Glasgow – where temperatures plummeted to -14C – showed more than 200 people standing patiently in line during a blizzard for hot food.
Donated packages being given out by the Kindness Homeless Street Team charity became coated in snow as they waited.
There were similar scenes in London a few days before when the Mirror spent several hours talking to rough sleepers at the capital’s busiest street kitchen.
But volunteers are warning that the true scale of the homelessness problem is a ticking time bomb set to explode when lockdown ends.
While local authorities across the country have been praised for bringing vulnerable people into shelter during the pandemic, charities fear a surge of rough sleepers bedding down in parks and shop alcoves in a few months’ time.
The end of the Government’s eviction ban, combined with an expected wave of redundancies and no uplift in Universal Credit, mean many more could soon find themselves with nowhere to live.
Some charities are already working at capacity, and believe the underlying problem is hidden behind closed doors, with record numbers sofa-surfing or getting temporary accommodation in otherwise empty B&Bs.
Graeme Weir, one of the Glasgow volunteers, said: “This isn’t some Eastern European country that’s been decimated by years of communist rule.
“This is Glasgow city centre last night in the 21st century where people are waiting in line to be fed by Kindness Homeless Street Team Glasgow.
“This makes me so angry. This has to end.
“I know some personally and most of them are good people who have just hit a ‘wee bump in the road’. We as a civilised and caring nation need to step up.”
At the other end of the country, Jim Deans, who manages Sussex Homeless Support in Brighton, told the Mirror that in his area 1,000 homeless people are in often unsuitable emergency accommodation.
As well as distributing meals, his charity, which runs from a converted double-decker bus, has sourced microwaves for rough sleepers who were forced into unfurnished rooms when the first lockdown began in March last year.
“The number of people I feed on a Sunday has trebled since the first lockdown,” said Jim.
“I have sorted out some furnishings for these guys, but they still need feeding.
“There are tens of thousands of people who are facing eviction but cannot be evicted right now because of Covid-19.
“They are mostly with private landlords who will have no option but to evict unless the Government picks up the rent arrears.
“We have created the perfect storm. I don’t think we will be able to handle what comes at us. Obviously I am hoping these measures keep going.”
All homelessness charities agree that the coronavirus crisis has shown what can be done by treating the issue as a frontline emergency.
Steve Douglas, chief executive of homelessness charity St Mungo’s, said the hard work since March last year has made a “real difference”.
But he pointed out that homelessness is not a “static issue”, adding: “As the economy and employment market falters, the end of the eviction ban approaches, and without a commitment to extend the uplift in Universal Credit there are many more people facing a very real threat of losing their homes who could become part of this picture in the future.”
Mick Clarke, CEO of London-based The Passage, said his volunteers have been seeing increasing numbers of people new to the streets through job loss since July last year.
“During the first few months of lockdown, we had a glimpse of what could be achieved if everyone works together and there is the political will,” he said.
“However, the pandemic also highlighted the lack of provision for those with mental health and substance issues, with many people unable to come off the streets due to a shortage of appropriate accommodation.”
Government action to prevent evictions during the pandemic has seen a 41% fall in people losing their homes in the private sector.
Ministers asked local authorities to house all rough sleepers and those in night shelters as part of the “Everyone In” campaign.
But there was a 24% rise in sofa surfers – people staying with family and friends – being kicked out due to fears over the virus.
The number of homeless UK households jumped from 207,600 in 2018 to more than 219,000 at the end of 2019.
Research by Crisis suggests we could see 246,200 families and individuals homeless or in temporary accommodation by 2031.
Campaigners are warning that the pandemic has also seen a 15% rise in domestic abuse victims who end up on the streets.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, added: “Covid-19 has ripped open the cracks left by the gross shortage of decent social homes in this country.
“Thousands of people are struggling to survive the pandemic without a home thanks to decades of political neglect.
“From the taxi-driver sleeping rough, to the mother fleeing domestic abuse – this pandemic continues to be a never-ending nightmare.”
A Government spokesperson stressed decisive action had protected renters from eviction, supported rough sleepers and helped keep the vulnerable safe during the pandemic.
“Renters will continue to be protected, including six-month notice periods, and a ban on the enforcement of evictions, except in the most serious circumstances,” they added.
“We’re providing an unprecedented package of support, with over £700m this year to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping for good.
“We will continue our ambitious plans with a further £750 million next year.”
Just behind Trafalgar Square in central London, a snaking queue of at least 300 homeless people waited in line for food handouts.
Many shivered as they stood in line before being given hot pasta, soup,
sandwiches and tea or coffee, served by volunteers at a row of trestle tables.
Most were calm and grateful for the food, which was donated by local shops instead of being thrown in landfill the following day.
Others, however, were clearly agitated, and wolfed down their meal as quickly as possible.
They squatted in nearby shop windows, finishing their food in minutes so they could return to the spot where they had left their sleeping bag.
Some passers-by looked at the scene with astonishment. It was the only permitted gathering in the otherwise deserted capital that night.
Among the homeless people gathered at the Rhythms of Life street kitchen was Ben, 43, originally from Essex.
Ben told me he has been sleeping rough for 14 years, but has been put up in a hotel for the last three months.
Although he has been grateful for the warm accommodation, he has his sleeping bag and blankets ready in the corner of his room as he expects things to change soon.
“I used to sleep in Leicester Square,” Ben said. “Lockdown has helped in a way. I feel like I’ve sorted myself out. The coronavirus crisis has made people realise we are here and that we need help. It’s taken a global pandemic for people to realise!”
Another homeless man Danny, 54, explained how his experience has been different. He is still sleeping rough.
Danny told how he was crashing at other people’s homes when the pandemic started, but has since found himself back on the streets because friends could not let him stay due to social distancing.
“I’ve had a lot of people being kind to me before,” said Danny. “But because of Covid people cannot extend that any more. Not being in a bubble with anyone else means you are turned out. My friends are in fear of getting a fine.
“Last week was really cold but once you are inside your tent you can sleep pretty well. You can get used to it. After a while you don’t hear the noise around you.
“When I started I was on my own, so I was quite vulnerable. I was attacked by teenagers on skateboards one night. At that point I linked up with some others for more security. You can leave your possessions with them.”
Organiser Andrew Faris, who founded Rhythms of Life, said the numbers of people queueing for food donations has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic.
“It is increasing drastically now,” said Andrew, who was a former rough sleeper himself. “The reality on the street for us is that the queues are getting longer and longer. Figures have gone up from about 80 in the queue to between 200 to 250 every day, and a lot of them are in real difficulty.
“A lot of the hotels that were providing emergency temporary accommodation are no longer available for the homeless guys. Until July last year, they had a place to stay. After that, some of them went back on the streets.
“Social distancing means that there are fewer people allowed in hostels;
you can’t have people sleeping in the halls like before because they would be too close.
“We see a lot of people in the queue who we never saw before.
“Some of them are travelling long distances into central London by bus because they cannot afford to buy any food.
“Quite a few have mentioned that since this started their housing situation has changed.”
Recent figures show the number of permanent rough sleepers known to be living on London’s streets has risen by almost a quarter in three months.
There were higher numbers of rough sleepers observed who were not seen regularly enough to be deemed as living on the streets.