Roma Experiencing Rough Sleeping in Westminster

By: Dominic Williamson – WHP Partnership Manager and Facilitator

On 15 June 2023, WHP hosted an event at the Westminster Archives to launch a new research report we had commissioned on the experiences of Roma people sleeping rough in Westminster and the impact of the services working with them.

The independent report, Roma Experiencing Rough Sleeping in Westminster and Beyond: Evaluating New Approaches, was written by Maria Dumitru and Dr Solvor Mjøberg Lauritzen of the MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society. It sets out the findings from interviews with Roma people who have experienced rough sleeping in the borough and with the professionals working with them. It also makes some recommendations for action, which the WHP will be considering in the next few months.

Importantly, it also provides some of the context of the communities that people come from, including the poverty that has resulted from centuries of slavery, oppression and genocide.

This history is the background that has brought some of the poorest people in Europe on to the streets in some of the richest areas of Britain.

In recent years the number of people who are non-UK citizens sleeping rough in Westminster has risen and now make up the majority of people found on the streets. Among this diverse population, the largest group are from Roma communities in Romania, accounting for around 20 to 25% of those on the streets.

Since 2016 efforts have been made to improve the way that services work with this group and there is now a dedicated Roma Rough Sleeping team, run by St Mungo’s and funded by the GLA, which works in Westminster and other boroughs. This employs Roma Mediators who speak Romani and Romanian, and can engage with the community in their own language. There is also a Roma clinic offered at the Great Chapel Street NHS surgery. The report sets out that these have transformed the relationship between services and the Roma population.

At the launch we discussed several important insights from the report:

  • Migration is a major driver of levels of rough sleeping in Westminster
  • Responses by WHP partners are constrained by restrictions on entitlements, employment etc
  • Roma people have experienced a history of discrimination, slavery and genocide and come from some of the poorest and most marginalized communities in Europe
  • Important to recognise diversity of experience, migration stories, motivations and intersectionality
  • Roma people experience harassment and feel safer in the busy streets of Westminster – they were not attracted here by the offer of services
  • Health issues, fear and barriers to work and accommodation are key
  • The mediators in the Roma Rough Sleeping Team and the Roma clinic have been able to engage and build relationships with Roma people
  • Narratives of “organised begging by criminal gangs” need to be challenged
  • Importance of forming a Westminster response to government plans on ASB

We also explored the principles that we think should underpin our efforts to continue to improve the response to the Roma population aligned with WHP’s mission to work together to end rough sleeping in Westminster:

  • Human rights
  • Focus on enhancing dignity, health and wellbeing
  • Safeguarding of vulnerable people
  • Build engagement and trust in culturally sensitive ways
  • Involvement of people with lived experience
  • Engagement of all stakeholders, including local communities
  • Challenge antigypsyism
  • Recognise the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders
  • Challenge responses that seek to merely displace people
  • Evidence, evaluation and learning.

Over the next few months WHP’s strategic group will be considering the recommendations in the report and will use these and the principles above to prioritise an action plan to ensure we keep making progress to reduce rough sleeping among this population.

Please read the report and let me know what you think.

Finally, I would like to thank everyone who has made this work possible, especially Maria and Solvor, who were brilliant to work with throughout; the other researcher Michal Mižu Mižigár; Fernando Ruiz Molina who designed the report; World Habitat and London Housing Foundation for funding; Petra Salva (St Mungo’s) and Jenny Travassos (The Passage) for support; Becky Rice, my predecessor who originally commissioned the report; Nicoleta Bitu (St Mungo’s) and Rosa Ungpakorn (Great Chapel Street medical centre) for speaking at the event and everyone who spoke to the researchers, commented on drafts or contributed to the event.