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On the buses

Published 01 January 2024

Andy Solomon-Osborne reports on the growing number of homeless people seeking refuge on night buses

The No. 25 bus runs all night between Oxford Circus in central London and Ilford High Street in the outer London borough of Redbridge.

Throughout the night, revellers on their way home from the West End after a night out are interspersed with homeless people using the bus as a refuge.

The police and local authorities along the route have received a growing number of calls from passengers, bus drivers and ambulance crews worried about people asleep on the No. 25.

Thames Reach set out to measure the scale of the problem in conjunction with the London Ambulance Service and the Metropolitan Police.

A survey of passengers on two recent nights was conducted with the aim of assessing the numbers using the bus as overnight shelter and the profiles of the individuals concerned.

The research threw up some interesting results. It found a real diversity in the people using the overnight service – including a high percentage of women.

Most people were on their own, rather than in a group, and their support needs were most frequently as a result of drinking and mental health problems. They were also an older than average client group.

Perhaps the most important observation was that 85 per cent of the individuals in the survey had status or nationality issues barring them from access to public benefits – which meant their housing options were limited and depended on finding employment, using squats or returning to their country of origin.

Other night buses are used in the same way, but the No.25 is subject to more than the usual amount of night sleeping because the route passes a number of well-known places offering homeless services and provision in London. The No.25 service was mentioned by several rough sleepers who had accessed the Crisis Christmas advice services.

Passengers can get on the bus without passing the driver – which means they can use the service for free. Buses run all night and with a small number of stops it can be a long, uninterrupted journey.

At the end of the journey on Ilford High Street, passengers simply get off, walk across the road and wait for the next bus back into central London.

If passengers are asleep and cannot be woken, the driver’s only option is to take the bus – with them on it – into the terminus. He’ll attempt to rouse them and move them on. But if that fails, the driver may be forced to call the ambulance service or police, or take the bus out again with the passengers still asleep on it back to Oxford Street.

London Street Rescue has called for more research to look at the problem in greater depth – and to recommend ways of dealing with it. One solution may be to equip bus drivers, transport police, bus terminal staff and ticket inspectors with leaflets listing homeless services across London. It would be useful to identify specialist providers such as East European homeless services and give information in Polish/non-English languages.

As half of the sample knew of or have already accessed day centres, the bus companies and police could communicate with them via posters at day centres.

The street rescue team works with individuals sleeping rough who are referred to us via agencies such as council offices and day centres. The team is keen to work with any individual who is rough sleeping. Day centre staff or council officers can call the service on 0870 383 3333 until midnight, seven days a week for advice and guidance.

Time met Nationality Apx. Age Estimated support needs Information Access to public funds?
Thursday 7 August 2023
1:30am Latvian Mid 30s No
1:30am Vietnamese Mid 30s Possible mental health Uses the Manna day centre near London Bridge No
1:30am American 45–50 Partner of Dutch female – expects situation to be resolved shortly No
1:30am Dutch 35–40 Partner of American male – expects situation to be resolved shortly No
1:30am British Mid 40s Possible mental health Recently homeless – given information about the Two Step housing programme No
1:30am Sri Lankan Late 40s Drinker Aware of DCC & 999 day centres in Lewisham No
1:30am Lithuanian Early 20s Uses Dellow & Whitechapel day centres – expects to be in accommodation next week No
1:30am Eastern European 16–18 Didn’t want to engage – refused information leaflet
1:30am British (Camberwell) Late 20s Possible mental health Didn’t want to engage No
Friday 8 August 2023
2:30am British (Redbridge) 49 Drinker "Evicted from RSL property in January ’08 (reason not clear), living on disability living allowance, rejected by homeless persons unit as intentionally homeless. Needs help to access hostel" Yes
3:00am Lithuanian Mid 40s Drinker English too poor to get information No
3:00am Scottish Mid 40s Drinker Was referred to team same day by Dellow centre (Altab Ali Park) but sleeping on buses Yes
3:30am Nigerian Early 40s Being returned to Nigeria via the IOM reconnection service in one week. Stays at friends in the day and has been sleeping on No. 25 bus for the past three weeks No
This table shows the profile of people using the No. 25 night bus for refuge, as counted by Thames Reach over two nights

Andy Solomon-Osborne works for Thames Reach’s London Street Rescue service and is set-up manager of the Lambeth SORT team.