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'As the blade was coming towards him': the lethal risks homeless face

Waste management firm reports over 100 near-misses involving rough sleepers in containers

'As the blade was coming towards him': the lethal risks homeless face
Biffa foreman and driver Glynn Corker warned of the importance of remaining alert. Photograph: Fabio de Paolo/for the Guardian

In the early hours of a damp Friday at Biffa’s Sheffield depot, foreman and driver Dave Colley recalled how encounters with homeless people sleeping in bins are “one of the most frightening experiences in the world”.

They are so frequent and potentially dangerous that checks before a dry-mixed recycling load can be emptied into a lorry aren’t just for contamination, but for the presence of people.

“When a homeless person gets into a bin, they cover themselves up with cardboard. You can open a bin up, and not see them,” said Colley. The little kick drivers give to a bin after checking inside may not be enough to wake someone up, he added.

From April to December 2019, Biffa employees recorded 109 near-misses, or encounters with people either sleeping in or near its bins.

But combating the issue is arduous. Driver Phil Jordan emphasised how scales attached to the lift that hoists containers up to the compactor’s mouth can also be ineffective in detecting people.

Although a load over 60kg is considered heavy for one of Biffa’s 1,100-litre refuse containers, on one occasion, he was about to pour a load into his truck when he heard a young man shouting. “I had to run to stop it as the blade was coming towards him,” said Jordan. “He was only about six stone, wet through.”

When drivers report these incidents, the Biffa alerts StreetLink, a national organisation that puts rough sleepers in contact with local support services.

Homeless families putting budgets under strain, say councils

But Jordan recalled how a rough sleeper, who had slept in a bin outside a Greggs branch in Barnsley town centre, was evicted from his council flat for vandalising it while experiencing severe mental health problems. “He ended up back in the bin – it’s a sad state of affairs,” Jordan said.

Biffa’s bins are fitted with locks, but while out on a 5am collection with the company’s health and safety director, Paul Wright, many of those outside shops and offices in Barnsley and Rotherham proved to be unlocked.

At a stop-off in a Jet petrol station in Mexborough, driver Glynn Corker pointed out a commercial recycling bin where a rough sleeper had been spotted by drivers on several occasions. Though it can make the job more stressful, Corker highlighted the importance of “not becoming complacent” about the potential of finding someone.

Emptying a container into the back of his truck, he explained how the compactor immediately crushes waste before pushing it to the back of the vehicle. “It’s got some power behind it,” said Corker.

Biffa is now trialling in some areas “human detectors”, which measure temperature and CO2 levels for human activity on its bins. But while Wright believed this was a step in the right direction for tackling the “national issue”, he added: “There’s only so much the waste management company can do.”

Quick guide

Rough sleeping and homelessness in the UK

Show HideIs rough sleeping getting worse?

The government claims rough sleeping in England fell for the first time in eight years in 2018, from 4,751 in 2017 to 4,677. But the body that oversees the quality of official statistics in the UK has said the number should not be trusted after 10% of councils changed their counting methods. Rough sleeping in London has hit a record high, with an 18% rise in 2018-19.

The numbers of people sleeping rough across Scotland have also risen, with 2,682 people reported as having slept rough on at least one occasion.

Shelter, whose figures include rough sleepers and people in temporary accommodation, estimate that overall around 320,000 people are homeless in Britain.

What’s being done about rough sleeping?

The government’s Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which places new duties on state institutions to intervene earlier to prevent homelessness has been in force for more than a year, but two thirds of councils have warned they cannot afford to comply with it. In 2018, James Brokenshire, the housing secretary, announced a one-off £30m funding pot for immediate support for councils to tackle rough sleeping.

How does the law treat rough sleepers?

Rough sleeping and begging are illegal in ENgland and Wales under the Vagrancy Act 1824, which makes ‘wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon, and not giving a good account of himself or herself’ liable to a £1,000 fine. Leading homelessness charities, police and politicians have called on the government to scrap the law.

Since 2014, councils have increasingly used public space protection orders to issue £100 fines. The number of homeless camps forcibly removed by councils across the UK has more than trebled in five years, figures show, prompting campaigners to warn that the rough sleeping crisis is out of control and has become an entrenched part of life in the country.

Is austerity a factor in homelessness?

A Labour party analysis has claimed that local government funding cuts are disproportionately hitting areas that have the highest numbers of deaths among homeless people. Nine of the 10 councils with the highest numbers of homeless deaths in England and Wales between 2013 and 2017 have had cuts of more than three times the national average of £254 for every household.

What are the health impacts of rough sleeping?

A study of more than 900 homeless patients at a specialist healthcare centre in the West Midlands found that they were 60 times more likely to visit A&E in a year than the general population in England.

Homeless people were more likely to have a range of medical conditions than the general population. While only 0.9% of the general population are on the register for severe mental health problems, the proportion was more than seven times higher for homeless people, at 6.5%.

Just over 13% of homeless men have a substance dependence, compared with 4.3% of men in the general population. For women the figures were 16.5% and 1.9% respectively. In addition, more than a fifth of homeless people have an alcohol dependence, compared with 1.4% of the general population. Hepatitis C was also more prevalent among homeless people.

Sarah Marsh, Rajeev Syal and Patrick Greenfield

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A recent briefing session with homelessness charity St Mungo’s, to help companies understand the wider issues facing rough sleepers in the UK, had made him contemplate the “tragic circumstances” that led people to climb into bins, potentially endangering their lives. “You must just go into survival mode – it seems safe, it’s warm, and it’s dry,” said Wright.

Later that morning, as shops were opening for business in Sheffield city centre, Nigel Jones, 53, a rough sleeper of three years, was sitting in the doorway of Poundland on Castle Square. Jones has slept there many times since his life “turned to chaos” when his brother killed himself.

Because he isn’t considered priority for accommodation by the council, and many hostels in the city are often full, the Poundland spot offers shelter where he can still be seen by outreach teams.

But at weekends, sleeping here becomes riskier. “Sometimes you get pissed on, or spat on by people who’ve been out,” said Jones. On these occasions, he sleeps in the Biffa bins behind WH Smiths. “I’ve been woken up by the bin men many times,” he added.

Topic: #sheffield
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