“The only thing that is different now is the fact that we’ve got the world’s press here,” says Murphy James, manager of the Windsor Homelessness Project.
In January, the media descended on the town where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will marry in two weeks.
Rough sleepers - who number at most 15 in the town - were inundanted with camera crews and journalists after Simon Dudley, the leader of Windsor And Maidenhead Council, urged police to move them on ahead of the Royal Wedding on 19 May.
Dudley claimed some were begging so aggressively they were “frog marching” tourists to cash points, something that HuffPost established wasn’t in the council’s own reports of complaints.
But the Windsor Homelessness Project says that since the public attention, the council seems to be doing more to find homeless people accommodation, “some successfully, some people not so successfully”.
“There are people that have been housed... Whether that’s a result of the press being here, I don’t know if I can tell you,” James says.
But he fears things will go back to how they were after 19 May.
“As soon as the world’s media are gone, you know there’s there’s scope for people to return back to the old ways because there’s nobody watching.” He is concerned about a lack of longer-term commitment to the situation.
James says he has been invited to meetings with the council to discuss what could be done for the homeless but “then nothing much comes of that... it’s all talk and no action”.
He has has found himself arguing with the council about what help it actually provides. A supposed emergency night shelter only has seven spaces, only admits men and only takes those who have been registered in advance, he says.
James ruefully notes Windsor’s homeless population has barely changed since 2009, when his homelessness project was set up out of the town’s baptist church. Then, there were between 10 and 15 rough sleepers. When James took over as manager in 2016, the figure was the same.
He recalls that people used to express disbelief that Windsor - a popular tourist destination with its castle, Legoland theme park and listed buildings - even had homeless people. Today, rough sleepers have moved from sleeping in the town’s parks to its streets, making them more visible. The street by Windsor Castle, where the royal wedding will take place, has semi-permanent spots in its bus shelters where people bed down.
Stuart Hatcher became homeless when he lost his flat last year. When he spoke to HuffPost last week, he was still sitting among the messy den of cardboard, belongings and sleeping bag by the castle he was in four months ago. But he’s had good news.
“I’ve got a flat,” he says, smiling. It’s only in the pipeline and he doesn’t know when he will get it or where it will be, but the news has raised his spirits.
He jokes about renting out his space on the street to the thousands of tourists he expects will want to watch the royal couple go by. He says he heard Prince Harry himself intervened to stop anyone moving on the area’s homeless people.
He’s suffering from asthma and a bad leg but says people in the area “have been alright” towards him since the media furore. He’s even had visits from council officers, which he says had not happened before.
Before he was homeless, Hatcher worked as a courier and a conservatory fitter. When he gets the new flat, he wants to “keep meself to meself” and “behave meself” as he tries to get back into work.
“There are people that have been out here two or three years, never mind a few months... I’ve had some good news but it makes you wonder, all these people who’ve been out here two or three years, why haven’t they got any help?”
Despite apparent efforts by the council, there was a recent reminder of its failures on the issue.
In March, the council was told to apologise and pay thousands in compensation to a disabled man with mental health problems who slept on friends’ sofas and in garages for three months because the council failed to act quickly enough to find him accommodation. It eventually housed him in a third-floor flat that had no lift access, despite the fact he could not walk without crutches and suffered chronic back pain.
The Local Government Ombudsman called the case “another example of a council on the outskirts of the capital struggling to cope with homelessness”. It urged the council to review how it handles complaints, something the council said in April was “being looked at seriously”.
The case makes James question whether council officers are fully trained in the law and procedures they have to follow. He doubts the Homelessness Reduction Act, which came into force last month and expands councils’ duty to help the homeless, will bring about change unless a court case sets a precedent.
Wayne, a 42-year-old former labourer from Kings Lynn, became homeless after he was too ill to work and has been sleeping rough in Windsor for about a year.
He says that since the royal wedding media coverage, some locals seem to view all the area’s homeless people as aggressive beggars. “The fact we’re getting tarred with the same brush is just unbelievable,” he says.
“About a month and a half ago I was attacked about half two in the morning just because I was homeless.
“I was asleep in my sleeping bag... Next thing I know, a load of drunken night clubbers decided it would be fun to start stamping all over my head and my ribs, all because I’m homeless, sleeping in a doorway.
“That’s the abuse we have to put up with. My ribs and all that were cracked... Every time I go to sleep I’m worried I’m gonna get attacked again or my stuff is gonna get stolen.”
He says he has approached the council for help but they deemed him, a single man, not vulnerable enough for it. “I don’t even know what they’re saying half the time,” he says.
He bemoans that he says money is being spent on the town ahead of the wedding - the street around the castle was recently resurfaced - but not on the homeless.
He says he won’t stay in Windsor. When asked where he will go, he sighs: “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
With two weeks until the world’s media returns for the wedding, James warns that even when rough sleepers are rehoused, that isn’t a simple end to the story.
“A lot of people that live life on the street, or have done for a period of time, don’t know how to manage a tenancy they don’t know how to manage money, pay bills, cook for themselves, look after their hygiene or be alone with their thoughts.
When sleeping rough, he says, “you’re constantly surrounded by people and whether there’s any interaction with those people it doesn’t matter - you are constantly surrounded by other bodies and social interaction.”
To help keep people in any housing that’s given to them, more support is needed to help with issues like addiction and mental health problems, he says. After the cameras have cleared following the wedding, its these longer-term needs that may get forgotten, he says.
“If we don’t do that, we’re just going to find ourselves in a never ending cycle of homelessness.”
Windsor and Maidenhead Council insisted its housing staff were fully trained on the latest homelessness legislation. It added its lead member for housing had apologised and to Mr X, whose treatment by the council was condemned by the Local Government Ombudsman.
A spokesperson said: “We work year-round alongside a range of key partners to ensure vulnerable residents, including those who are homeless and rough sleeping or find themselves at risk of homelessness, have the appropriate support.
“Our strategy to prevent and reduce homelessness is designed around meeting people’s needs and includes temporary emergency accommodation, a year-round night shelter and independent living facility, as well as providing prevention and mediation services for those at risk of losing a tenancy and temporary accommodation.”