'I only want one room to sleep in': Homeless tell of life on the streets

Sitting near Leicester Square in central London trying to scrape together £9 from passers-by in order to get a hostel room, Steve is just one of thousands sleeping rough on England's streets.

The 39-year-old from South Shields said he became homeless four years ago when his son died, adding: "I turned my back on my life and ended up on the streets."

Homelessness figures
Homelessness figures

Steve, who declined to give his surname, and 27-year-old Alex are among the hundreds living on the streets in Westminster, which has the highest number of homeless of any local authority in England, according to a snapshot survey.

Both men were critical of a lack of support and the actions of the police for moving the homeless on.

Homelessness figures
Homelessness figures

"The police have arrested me four or five times just for sitting here asking for human kindness - asking to stay alive. They have told me outright that I am an eyesore for the tourists. That's why they don't want us here," Steve said.

"It's a crime to be homeless in this country - literally," he added.

Alex, from London, who also declined to give a surname, started sleeping rough 12 years ago after falling out with his family when he was 15 years old.

Homelessness figures
Homelessness figures

"I argued with my family," he explained, "then I moved out and haven't been able to hold down a job properly."

Alex then started squatting in empty buildings.

"I landed on the street and I was so cold, so I broke into a building to go to sleep," he said. "I then got to know some people who told me more about squatting. And that was that.

"Now I move around as much as possible."

Homelessness figures
Homelessness figures

Discussing the increase in homeless people on the streets, Alex said: "There's hundreds of us. Hundreds and hundreds of drug addicts, and not much help. The system has got a big problem, they are saying they are helping people but all they are doing is processing them and then putting them back on their own. They are pretending. They are not really helping.

"You just end up getting put through the same system, you get the same result and you end up back in the same place."

When asked what he thinks would help improve the situation, he replied: "A building. A room. The clue is in the name 'homeless' - just give them a home. There's hundreds of thousands of empty buildings. Just put us in empty buildings and then problem solved. You can deal with the other things afterwards: drugs, mental issues and other stuff. That's the easy part, because we deal with them every day - we handle them really well."

Steve explained how settling down in one spot is often made difficult by the Community Protection Notices which enable police to move the homeless on if "the conduct of the individual or body is having a detrimental effect, of a persistent or continuing nature, on the quality of life of those in the locality".

"I have been banned from Westminster," he said. "If [the police] see me walking through Westminster, sat in Westminster, doing anything in Westminster, they will arrest me.

"I only want one room to sleep in. Failing that, I only want a bit of concrete to sit on - and I can't have that?"

Local authorities estimated there were around 4,751 rough sleepers on a single night in autumn 2017, according to data from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

At 217, Westminster had the highest number in England.

Councillor Rachael Robathan, Westminster Council's Cabinet Member for Housing, said that because of the lire of the West End the authority faced "unique pressures" because most rough sleepers came from outside the borough.

She added: "We continue to spend more than any other local authority on doing our best to ensure rough sleepers find a route away from the street."