We’ve been interviewing European homeless people affected by the Home Office’s policy of detaining and deporting rough sleepers.
This is Mateusz’s* story:
I’m 54 years old. I was born in a small town in Poland.
I came to the UK in 2013. I had savings of about £2500, so I planned to live off those while I looked for a job. I had spent time in other countries—in America, Italy, France, Yugoslavia—and wanted to try somewhere new, and see how it went. I wanted to see what life was like for Poles living in London. It helped that my brother had lived here for over ten years, and had networks here. He said it would be a good idea for me to come here.
When I arrived I took English classes at college for three months. I was looking forward to a new life, and new experiences. But the whole experience has turned out to be disappointing.
It was never difficult to find a job. Some of the work was OK, and some was exploitative. When I worked for other Polish people, they mostly paid me properly, and the conditions were good. The worst experience was when I worked as a rubbish collector for the Hilton hotel chain. I worked 220 hours in a single month and at the end of the month they paid me £700. So I left. But I have good memories of the other people—mainly Italians—who worked there with me.
But the living conditions for migrant workers in the UK were the worst I had ever experienced. For a while I shared a room with nine other adults and a baby. I was really shocked that this was all that was available for workers. There was and remains a lot of exploitation, including exploitation of Polish people by Polish people. Once when I was doing casual work as a painter in Stamford Hill, they worked us so hard that I said I’m not doing this any more. My employer said I owed him £600 for not turning up.
I spent two years working as a painter and decorator. For much of this time I was living with my brother. This was good for a while, but then my brother’s wife developed a drug problem. I ended up having an argument about this over Skype with relatives back in Poland. This strained the relationship with my brother. Eventually, my brother and his wife moved outside of London, to a small town, and I decided not to go with them.
I lived with different friends for 6 months after my brother moved away. Moving from one place to another, it was harder to get steady work, but I used to pick up odd jobs here and there.
Eventually, though, my friends’ hospitality ran out, and I ended up alone, and on the streets. I find it distressing to have people look at me when I’m on the streets. I feel like they despise me for being homeless. I feel shame at being in this position.
Through a Polish man I met on the street, I learnt about the Big Issue, and began selling it in Finsbury Park. Selling the Big Issue made things slightly easier for me—at least I had a little money. For a few months I was going to the Passage, a homelessness charity in Victoria, for the soup kitchen, and to take a shower. But when they found out I was selling the Big Issue, and doing other odd jobs, they said I wasn’t eligible for their services any more.
I ended up sleeping at an encampment near Seven Sisters with a group of other Polish men. One night I came back late and immigration enforcement was there. I literally bumped into them as they were there serving papers on some of the other guys.
There were about eight immigration officers, maybe ten. They served me and the others with removal notices. They wouldn’t explain the reason, or tell us what crime we had committed—they literally would say nothing about it—but on the letters they gave us it said we were abusing our treaty rights by rough sleeping. They took away all our ID documents and didn’t tell us anything about appeal rights.
Some of the guys were taken away that night to the detention centre at Heathrow. I don’t know why I wasn’t. Maybe because they didn’t see me bedding down. Of the guys who were taken away, one was released because he was seriously ill as a result of his alcohol problem, but the others were kept there for a couple of months before being deported.
The charities weren’t involved, I don’t think. But we all knew that some of the homeless charities are fake – they pretend to help people but actually they gather information for the Home Office. Friends told me that, in another raid in Tottenham, charity outreach workers helped immigration enforcement detain four people, two of whom were deported back to Poland.
Being served removal papers and having my documents taken away has had a massive impact on my life. I am suffering from stress. I feel absolutely restless and like I have to be on my guard all the time. I’m afraid I’ll be stopped again. I don’t sleep well—I have nightmares about that raid.
I feel like my condition has deteriorated a lot since that raid. I feel a lot worse. I’ve been offered jobs, but I can’t take them because employers want to see my ID documents, and the Home Office has got them. Even if I had the money, I couldn’t rent a flat now. Without documents it’s impossible to live a normal, dignified life.
As soon as I get my documents back I want to go back to Poland. I’m very tired and disappointed by the UK. Life here has been completely different from what I imagined and hoped. But it’s ironic – now I want to go back, but I can’t until I have my documents back.
I feel that my friends and I are being treated like criminals even though we haven’t done anything wrong. I feel hurt by what has happened. This policy really hurts people and is completely unreasonable. Most of the people I’ve met on the streets are in work but can’t afford accommodation. They really wanted to improve their situation – they were real fighters – and some of them had absolutely nothing in Poland. Deportation would not be a solution for them as they have no networks. Most people on the streets would be better off being helped into work and accommodation in the UK, rather than being deported. The problem is accommodation – it’s too expensive for working people.
If I thought I could get that sort of help, I would have loved to stay here in the UK. I don’t think the government is doing anything good for migrants, and it will only get worse after Brexit. That’s another reason to go home. Immigrants are massively exploited here: the people I know are working really long hours and aren’t paid properly. Sometimes they’re not paid at all. I don’t feel like I’m wanted or valued as a person. My labour is not valued.
*Not his real name.