A rough sleeper has told of his “absolute shock” at having been awoken by police on Tuesday to the news that the man sleeping beside him had died during the night.
James, who declined to give his last name, said the man in his mid-40s is thought to have died shortly after 2.15am on Tuesday morning, on a pavement outside Curry’s PC World on London’s busy Tottenham Court Road.
The death comes just days after around 100 rough sleepers were evicted from a disused building nearby, which had been turned into a makeshift shelter by volunteers hoping to protect the homeless community during freezing temperatures in March.
Homeless charity Crisis described the death as a “tragic reminder of the dangers faced by thousands of people who have no choice but to sleep on the streets”.
Shelter said that more needed to be done to help people off the streets “and to get to grips with the root causes of homelessness itself”.
As James gathered up his bedding to leave the police cordon where his friend still lay concealed by blankets, the 34-year-old described his friend’s final hours.
Known as “Irish Keith”, James said his friend had smoked spice - the synthetic cannabis banned under the Psychoactive Substances Act in April 2016 – before going to sleep for the night.
“Right before he died, he had walked off to get a blanket and I’d rolled (a cigarette) for him... he was too pissed to do it,” James said, adding that Keith had “looked out” for him on the streets since he had become homeless two weeks ago.
“It’s an absolutely shocking thing to wake up to... I thought we were been woken up (by police) to be moved on,” he said.
Keith had been homeless for 27 years, was on medication, and had a cast on his leg, James said. “Apparently, on the CCTV he was seen sitting up on his elbow, and then he just fell back and that was it.”
Clara, who had also been sleeping outside the Curry’s store, said: “It’s so scary that he’s still right there.”
The body, shrouded in blankets, was still visible on the pavement after the morning rush hour around 10am.
Police at the scene said there was nothing suspicious about the death which the London Ambulance Service attended at 7.55am.
James said Keith’s death had given him a renewed sense of urgency to get in to accommodation: “I need to get something actionable... anything to get me off the streets.”
The UK is experiencing record levels of rough sleeping with local authorities estimating there were around 4,751 rough sleepers on a single night in autumn 2017 - the highest number since comparable records began in 2010.
James said he had become homeless after losing his job as a bricklayer’s assistant in Cambridge, which came with accommodation. The lay off came without warning: “They just said: ‘we don’t have any work for you anymore’.”
Camden Outreach workers spoke to James and Clara at the scene, offering them hot drinks from a nearby cafe. One worker said they would be attempting to get James into accommodation tonight under the London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s “no second night out” homeless plan.
Clara, who has been sleeping intermittently at her father’s house, would be able to stay with the housing shelter Pathways.
James was relieved by the news, having earlier said he was at a loss about what to do next. He said the outcome of a tax return appointment in 13 days, on April 9, was his only hope to afford accommodation.
Representatives from Crisis and Shelter said they were “deeply saddened” by the death.
Matthew Downie, director of policy at Crisis, said in a statement: “It is a grim reality that the average age of death for a homeless person is just 47.
“No one should have to face the dangers of the streets, but we have the evidence that rough sleeping can be ended.
“Recent progress by the Government, including the founding of its rough sleeping taskforce has come not a moment too soon. Now we must build on it, and work together to end homelessness for good.”
Greg Beales, director of communications, policy and campaigns at Shelter, said: “Rough sleepers are at the sharpest end of our housing crisis and endure terrible conditions, resulting in poor health and sadly, shorter lives.
“More needs to be done to help people off the streets, and to get to grips with the root causes of homelessness itself.
“That means tackling the chronic lack of genuinely affordable homes and making sure housing benefit actually reflects the cost of renting in the short-term.”