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Big Issue vendor Paul reveals what it’s like to sleep rough in Westminster

The vendor was forced from the underpass he called home in the shadow of Parliament

Locked out Paul Westminster

A general election is the latest twist in the Brexit-propelled political turmoil that has dogged the UK for the last year – and a Big Issue vendor who goes by the name Paul Westminster has had an unparalleled view of it.

The vendor sells the magazine at Westminster Tube’s exit 5 and 6 – just yards from where politicians have been debating Brexit since 2016.

Paul was part of a small community of rough sleepers who even called a tunnel linking the Houses of Parliament and the Tube station his home, bedding down there every night under the noses of MPs.

You will think, ‘Oh, that is one of our friends over there ‘ but it turns out she isn’t. We are on our own

But emails from outgoing Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons Rose Hudson-Wilkin, leaked to the New Statesman earlier this year, revealed that she wrote to parliamentary authorities in February complaining of the “ongoing stench” of the tunnel.

Hudson-Wilkin, who was honoured by Speaker John Bercow in his parliamentary farewell last week as she moves on to become the Bishop of Dover, also reportedly said she would “physically feel as though I am going to be sick each time I go by”.

Those comments caught the eye of Big Issue vendor Paul, who has written a letter to the bishop asking to meet her.

Paul and the small community of people who slept in the tunnel were evicted in August after a grate was installed to mark Parliament’s new boundary following a transfer of land from Transport for London. “Being evicted humbled me down to the ground,” he told The Big Issue. “The tunnel is now sitting warm and empty and unused at night while we sleep outside.”

In his letter, Paul, who is in his 50s, claims that the group were the subject of increased police action.

“Your complaint was in February – soon after that, we began to be harassed with ‘Community Protection Notices’ which threatened £20,000 fines for sleeping in the tunnel,” he wrote to Hudson-Wilkin. “Our belongings were taken and thrown away without warning, sleeping bags and all. We were harassed under the 1824 Vagrancy Act and then, without warning given, a grate was installed expelling us from the best shelter in the area and the closest thing we had to a home.”

Paul and activists from Labour Homelessness Campaign and Extinction Rebellion have staged protests at the site four times, calling for the community to be allowed back into the tunnel to sleep.

The Big Issue vendor wanted to explain the realities of life on the streets to Hudson-Wilkin and insisted: “I don’t want her to destroy her career because she has had quite a career, I don’t want to put her down, I just want her to realise what she’s doing.”

After Paul’s letter attracted the attention of the Guardian, Hudson-Wilkin said her comments had been made out of concern and that “in 21st-century Britain nobody should have to sleep outdoors in conditions like that”.

Paul, a former business owner who came to the UK in 2000 and is set to leave the country this month, has seen two people die “less than 20 yards” from him in his year on the streets. Last December, Gyula Remes’ death in the tunnel sparked widespread shock. Paul cites poor financial management as his reason for falling into homelessness and credits his spell as a Big Issue vendor with teaching him the value of money.

In his time spent in the Westminster tunnel, he has had face-to-face time with politicians – he speaks about knowing the SNP’s Chris Law as “Mr Dundee” and how Labour’s Stephen Pound is a “great man who will always share some thoughts in the morning”.

But he told The Big Issue that the former Commons chaplain’s comments have cast a shadow on his thoughts on Parliament.

“The reaction from the chaplain kind of explains the whole thing because she is very much involved with the Government and the people who represent us in Parliament,” he said. “You will think, ‘Oh, that is one of our friends over there ‘ but it turns out she isn’t. We are on our own.

“But it is quite exciting here, I am actually quite sad to leave – it’s the most talked-about place on the planet. My opinion is that Parliament is going upside down because the people are not very well represented – maybe that’s the case.”

Over the next few weeks, politicians will be hitting the campaign trail with Brexit the focal point.

But Paul’s experience of how homelessness is dealt with on Parliament’s doorstep shows why – along with austerity, the NHS and the other issues being pushed out of sight by Brexit – it must be given a higher profile before December 12.

Whoever comes out on top, homeless people must be treated with a helping hand rather than being locked out in the cold.

We will continue the fight – The Big Issue view

Big Issue Foundation CEO Stephen Robertson said: “No one should be in any doubt that a life lived on the streets of our country is unacceptable, dangerous and, in some tragic circumstances, life-ending. The stereotypes engendered by negative language only serves to demonise people as being the architects of their own decline, worthy of disdain, fear and criminalisation. Of course, no one should have to sleep in a tunnel. The Vagrancy Act 1824 makes it a crime just to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales. Harassing people and attempting to fine them only moves the problem from one place to another. The problem does not go away and we should be working to remove this from our modern society once and for all. The Big Issue will continue fighting to do just that.”

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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