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Why don't they leave?

May 28 2009
We look at the reasons some East Europeans stay on the streets rather than going home


No money, no job, no home, foreign country... and sticking it out. Recent research by Homeless Link reveals that more Eastern and Central Europeans than ever are sleeping rough in London, and the numbers are increasing. One in every four people living on the capital's streets is from Eastern Europe. But why do they stay? At first glance, it may appear that homeless immigrants are living on hope, refusing to admit failure or simply subsisting on alcohol. But the recession is global, and the economic situation has struck in the A8 and A2 [Eastern Europe] countries too.

One 48-year-old man from southern Poland came here because he could not find a job back home. He worked in a metal factory for three years until was made redundant. When I ask why he has chosen to say, he shows a picture of three girls aged seven, 11 and 12. "I have to support them. But the safe is empty now in Poland." There are no jobs, he complains, and those that are left are poorly paid.

Paulius, 24, is from a Lithuanian town of Siauliai. He has worked in the UK for three-and-a-half years and believes that he now deserves government support. "I’ve already paid for this charity soup with my taxes," he says. "This is the situation I'm in now. But it will get better." Paulius is busy setting up a business on eBay and has no plans to return to Lithuania. "It's bad here, and it's bad there. Why bother? Look: everywhere the situation is like a sinking ship. The difference is that Lithuania, Poland, all of them will sink; but the UK will pump out the water, sooner or later," he says.

A young Polish man in black raincoat also thinks he deserves support after six years of work in this country. Following an accident at work, he needs medical treatment. "After those years I'm entitled to it here. Imagine if I go back to Poland, having paid no taxes there - who will help me?" However, he thinks those who "have no job, no money and speak no English" should go back to wherever they came from. "If they stay here, every day their life gets worse and worse."

Vasile is a 31-year-old computer engineer from Bucharest, the capital of Romania. After working as a tour guide in Dubai, he decided to try a new life in the UK, because the alternative monthly salary in Romania was not attractive. Vasile is now washing cars in London, illegally, and waiting for things to get better. Yet he is full of hope. "The Earth is round and moving. I believe one day everything will change, and I will have what I’m only dreaming of now," he says. But what keeps him here on the London streets? "It's like a lottery. You play once, you lose, then you play even more," he explains. Vasile thinks pushing Eastern Europeans "out of here" is not a solution, as everyone should have a right to a good life. "I came here to work," Vasile says. He misses his family and friends, but has partly replaced them with his new-found 'brothers of fate'. Vasile speaks good English and translates for other Romanians who know only the basics. "I'm suffering now, yes; but it has benefits - it makes you stronger," he says. His family is unaware of his situation: "When things are good, I tell them. When they are not so good, I keep it to myself. We all do."

Some councils in London are offering tickets back home, but the numbers of people using this service is not high. In two years, Barka UK, which assists impoverished Eastern European immigrants, has helped just 310 rough sleepers to return to their home countries. Ewa Sadowska, who runs the project, explains the psychological reasons for not wanting to return home: "It is very difficult to face your family and especially yourself, to admit that you are a failure, that the dreams you came here with never came true." How can you look your family in the eye, with empty pockets, no teeth and maybe an alcohol addiction?

Ms Sadowska offers another explanation of why destitute immigrants choose to stay in the UK: they simply get used to life on the streets. Getting alcohol, a meal and a bed is not as difficult here as it usually is 'at home'. If nothing good awaits the immigrants in their home countries, they prefer to stay. The belief that this country has many more opportunities is still very strong and widespread.