LONDON (Reuters) - As most of Britain headed indoors to wait out the coronavirus, rough sleeper Mohamed Sisi stayed on a patch of pavement opposite London’s Charing Cross rail station with nowhere else to go.
Police had told him to move to a homeless shelter during the nationwide lockdown but when he went he found it closed, the 29-year-old told Reuters. “People are panicked. You don’t know what to do,” he said.
Homeless charities say hundreds are stuck in similar situations in the capital, at a time when homeless shelters are struggling with shortages of staff and supplies.
“If you don’t have a home, how can you stay inside?” asked Jeremy Gray, chief executive of Evolve, a London-based charity which provides accommodation for homeless people.
All apart from one of Evolve’s centres were currently open, the organisation said, but it was worried about staffing over the next few months.
“The big challenge for us under the circumstances would be even more people going off sick, and even more shifts needing to be filled,” said Gray.
“The challenge of supporting our vulnerable customers, more of whom would be going into isolation, you can just imagine the multiple challenges that would present.”
A handful of initiatives have sprung up to help.
London mayor Sadiq Khan announced on Saturday that 300 rooms in hotels owned by the Intercontinental Hotels Group had been booked for the next 12 weeks, to help homeless people self-isolate.
Homeless charity St Mungo’s coordinated the scheme and ride-hailing taxi drivers volunteered to ferry people to their rooms.
Britain’s Prince William, who is the patron of homeless charity The Passage, called on Thursday for more help for rough sleepers, and said he wanted to get 600 more people off the streets by Friday, according to London’s Evening Standard.
But at least 8,855 people slept on the streets from April 2018 to March 2019 in London alone, according to St Mungo’s data.
Charities say they are more likely to have underlying health problems, putting them in the most vulnerable group when it comes to the coronavirus.
“Everybody’s very scared, everybody doesn’t want to help everybody,” said a homeless Romanian man opposite Charing Cross station, who did not want to give his name. “It’s chaos, it’s hell.”
(This story adds dropped word “from” in fifth paragraph)
Reporting by Natalie Thomas; Writing by Elizabeth Howcroft; Editing by Andrew Heavens