'Destitute' immigrants fuel homelessness rise
Homelessness is on the rise in Merton, mainly due to a rising number of destitute eastern Europeans and people with drug and alcohol addictions.
Official Government figures estimated there were only two rough sleepers in the borough last year, but a Wimbledon Guardian investigation has found that figure to be up to 10 times that after uncovering a number of well-known homelessness hot spots in Morden, Mitcham and Colliers Wood.
In the car park of Morden Sainsbury’s, just a few yards away from Merton Council’s offices, a man and a woman have been sleeping in makeshift beds, with duvets and pillows, for more than three weeks.
The pair are known to homeless outreach groups and residents are warned not to approach them as they have been identified with having acute mental health issues as well as drink addictions.
A similar and bigger congregation of rough sleepers had been seen at the Iceland car park in Upper Green West, Mitcham, where residents reported between 10 and 15 eastern European people also sleeping in makeshift beds.
Less visible, but even more prevalent, are the numerous examples of temporary squatting and illegal entry by homeless people, for which official figures for Merton have shown an increase of more than 500 per cent in four years.
Another rough sleeper said he and several others will roam the streets of Mitcham and Tooting looking for empty properties where they can break into and sleep overnight.
He said: “A lot of the time I sleep in the big car park in Colliers Wood [the Priory Retail Park].
“I spent some time with a lot of Polish people in the Iceland car park in Mitcham.
“A lot of time I am in Tooting where there are many Sri Lankan people sleeping rough.”
According to figures from London homelessness charity Broadway, the number of people seen sleeping rough in Merton has steadily increased from four people in 2007-08 to 22 in 2010-11.
Nikki Zisman, project manager of Merton Faith in Action, runs a twice-weekly drop-in shelter at the Salvation Army’s headquarters in Kingston Road, near Wimbledon fire station.
She said there was an unmistakeable increase in people coming to the shelter within the last 12 months, which she believed was in the order of between 25 and 30 per cent.
She said: “It has been a gradual increase in the last 18 months and the most noticeable part of this is the number of Eastern European people sleeping rough in Merton.
“London has seen a rising number of homeless for a few years now, but we think we are seeing more in Merton as they are effectively pushed out of the centre, which is probably down to the Olympics later this year.”
Merton Council’s cabinet member in charge of housing issues, Councillor Martin Whelton, said that Government cuts had put extra pressure on the borough’s homelessness applications.
He said: “The potential impact in Merton is massive and we are inevitably going to face more challenges in the future.
“But this is something that officers are continuing to monitor and I think the biggest tests lie in the months and years ahead.”
'I don't have the documents to prove who I am'
We interviewed two Polish rough sleepers, who we agreed to give false names to protect their identity – Pawel and Piotr.
Pawel, 40, came to London in 2009 with his wife with the aim of securing a better life, but developed alcohol addiction after she left him because he was unable to find regular work as a painter.
He freely admitted to stealing food and alcohol and said he mostly saw Polish, Romanian, Ukranian and Russian people also sleeping rough in Mitcham and Tooting.
He said: “I want to give up the drinking but it’s so difficult when you are alone.
"I can’t just walk into an office where someone will give me a house and a job.
"I can’t speak English. I can’t really do anything because I don’t have any documents to even prove who I am.”
Piotr, 29, has been sleeping rough in Colliers Wood for nearly a year despite speaking fluent English and formerly holding down an administrative job at St George’s Hospital.
He said: “Merton police know me and they treat me OK because I don’t give them any trouble.
“There are many places where Polish people can get jobs cash-in-hand for £30 a day, but I’m educated and I’m not a slave.
“The benefits office has screwed up my paperwork and I’m still waiting for my P45.”
Thames Reach, London Street Rescue outreach service, funded by the Greater London Authority, sends out staff and volunteers to look for and provide assistance to people sleeping rough in Merton, including the rough sleepers in Morden.
Spokesman Mike Nicholas said it was currently aware of 15 people sleeping rough in Merton and were working with Merton Council to help get them into emergency accommodation.
Mr Nicholas said: “Reports that the recession has lead to higher numbers of homeless people from different backgrounds aren’t backed up by what our outreach teams are currently finding.
“However, as with most of London and the UK, and since the European Union expanded in 2004 and 2006, there are increasing numbers of destitute central and eastern European rough sleepers.”