Across our city centre, the sparkly Christmas lights are up. But their glitzy neon glow lights up a record number of our neighbours sleeping on the pavement.
Every November, on the same day across the country, volunteers fan out for the annual census that shames us; the government’s ‘rough sleeper count’. Last year, I joined the teams for the first time, working through the night. What I saw was profoundly shocking. And this year, it was even worse.
Part of the skill of a good counter is to find the spots where people go to bunk down. Somewhere dry. Somewhere safe. A bit off the beaten track.
And sure enough, down one ally we found a veritable United Nations; some Brummies, Czechs and Poles, who’d decided to bed down together for safety and security. They’d put up little flags from home.
One was working but just didn’t have enough to put down a deposit on a flat. Another had been in prison. He was smart, articulate, an ex-chef and landscape gardener, with his possessions packed into a little bag, stapled with poppy badges.
He was a proud man determined not to touch drugs or alcohol. ‘Here’ he said, ‘I give you some mamba’, and reached into his bag for the Polish sweets that share a name with the drug sweeping the streets.
‘Can’t we get you into somewhere before Xmas?’ I asked, ‘You can’t be out here in December, surely?’
‘I’m all set mate’ he replied. And gestured over to the car-park behind me. ‘I’ve got my burner, I’ve got my charcoal. I’ve got my smoker’.
He was preparing a cook-up for him - and his neighbours who needed feeding.
Across the city centre, a lot of homeless people huddle together for company and security. It’s a fraternity of the streets. People don’t lose their basic compassion when they lose their home. They look after each other.
Another group we found had pitched themselves some tents for comfort. We tried again to persuade them to take a hostel place.
‘Mark’ was looking after his missus and his sister, and there was no way he would leave them. I asked him whether he had tried a hostel place before. ‘Yeah’, he said, ‘but there’s lots of people there with problems. It’s not a good idea; too many people with the problems I’m trying to escape from’.
By 3AM, the half moon was high in cloudy sky, and striding down the city centre, through the locked up German Market, we met a little group including, Gaynor, an older woman who everyone called ‘Mom’.
She was bipolar, self-harmed ‘to let things out’ when things got too much, and was addicted to alcohol. She showed me her wrists scarred with cuts. All she wanted was a flat to call her own.
‘I’m a very private person’ she told me; ‘I just want a little place, where I can be myself with a little radio to listen to. And some books’. What kind of books, I asked. ‘Anything, by Jackie Collins or Maeve Binchy. A bit of escapism!’
Through the German market we walked, and the numbers kept climbing. And its those alone who seem most vulnerable.
A few of the people you meet, are recently out of prison. Pitched into hostels will little support, and often at risk of abuse from other drug-users in the house. So, they prefer the relative safety of the streets.
But it hadn’t worked out for Neil. He’d been robbed of everything. All he had, he could fit in his parka pockets. That was all he had.
Most shocking of all, was the new reality that we now have disabled citizens sleeping rough.
By the locked up chalet-style stalls in the German market, decorated with a rampant Father Christmas, we met a man who’d lost both legs. Sleeping in a doorway. Next to his wheelchair.
And he wasn’t the only disabled citizen we counted. Up in the arcade round the corner was a veteran who’d lost half a leg. All he had to keep him warm was a thin sleeping bag and a Help For Heroes sweatshirt. It was heartbreaking.
How has it come to this?
Over the last few years the number of rough sleepers has soared as austerity bites deep. I’m not allowed to reveal the numbers we found this year. But put it this way: last year, I finished our count around 3AM. This year, I didn’t get home until after 5AM.
The toxic mix of cuts to addiction services, a mental health system buckling under the strain, benefit cuts and sanctions, Universal Credit, an under-funded probation services and a simple shortage of affordable homes, have together created a vortex is knocking record numbers of our neighbours to the pavement.
This scandal cannot go on. It shames us. It is not morally acceptable for the second city in the fifth richest country on earth.
This is a magnificent country, full of kind and compassionate people. The St Basil’s Sleepout the following night boasted record numbers of fund-raising. Ordinary people are coming together to help. It’s time the government got behind them.
Liam Byrne is the Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill