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This man was sleeping at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 when Covid hit. Now he’s made a film about it

The Everyone In scheme offered hope that street homelessness could be ended for good. In new film 90 Days of Hope, journalist Paul Atherton chronicles how the scheme took off from his sleeping spot at Heathrow.

A homeless man who was among 200 people sleeping at Heathrow Airport when the pandemic hit has made a film about life on the streets during Covid.

Author and filmmaker Paul Atherton had been homeless for more than a decade and sleeping at the UK’s largest and busiest airport for two years when the country was locked down in March 2020.

The government acted quickly to launch the Everyone In scheme to protect rough sleepers from the virus, protecting more than 37,000 people by placing them in hotels, B&Bs and other emergency accommodation. But on March 22, as Boris Johnson announced the Covid lockdown, Atherton was calling Heathrow his bedroom.

His video diaries throughout that first lockdown have now been turned into a new short film 90 Days of Hope: Why Britain Chose Not To End Homelessness chronicling the time when Westminster leaders came closest to making street homelessness history. 

“We were at ground zero,” 53-year-old Atherton tells The Big Issue.

“The planes that were bringing people in from China were coming in so there was this really strange dichotomy where you thought if this was being treated seriously, we’d be the first people to be addressed. And so there was that sense that they didn’t feel like there was any urgency.”

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Atherton first became homelessness in 2009 after an error on his credit file left him unable to renew his tenancy and since then he has experienced all kinds of homelessness, from temporary accommodation to sofa surfing.

He would head to Terminal Five in the evenings to bed down in the terminal once planes had grounded and passengers had jetted off.

Atherton was not alone. In fact, the airport is such a magnet for homeless people that airport wellbeing group Heathrow Travel-Care continues to run a rough sleepers outreach project.

When Covid broke out the journey from sleeping in Terminal Five to departing for a more comfortable home was a delayed one for the 200 people sheltering there.

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It took until April 1 before the community were seen by authorities and the process of finding them safer homes began, he says.

In the meantime, misinformation and confusion become rife at the airport. The group bonded, according to Paul, to “becoming a proper community”. That bond continued throughout the pandemic, as migrants with no recourse to public funds – who were not supported through Everyone In – flocked there to find shelter.

“I think my favourite story at Heathrow was when we were in a queue waiting to have our temperature checked. This is what they were calling a medical assessment, which was laughable,” says Atherton.

“People in the queue were trying to decide whether they should cough or shouldn’t. It was like, “Oh, will we be taken in because we’re ill or will they not take us in?”

homeless in Heathrow
Atherton said around 200 people were staying at Heathrow when the pandemic began. The airport is such a popular shelter for rough sleepers that Heathrow runs an outreach service. Image: Paul Atherton

“It was that kind of idiocy really. This was the opportunity to get dentists and doctors in and get people seen properly and assessed properly. But none of that happened. So there was a lot of hope and disappointment in a very quick period of time.”

Atherton started keeping video diaries of his experiences after being contacted by writer/director Owain Astles, a member of the BAFTA and British Film Institute network crew. 

The pair met when Astles directed the film Sleeping Rough, produced with help from Cardboard Citizens and The Big Issue Foundation, The Big Issue’s charitable arm.

That film told the story of street homelessness based on the experiences of homeless people from all over the UK.

This time Astles had the chance to tell a new story of homelessness: one where the issue would be consigned to history for good.

Instead the film covers the missed opportunity as well as the uncertainty and chaos of Covid for those battling to get into a safe place.

I think one of the problems that we have as a society right now is that we don’t learn from our history

Paul Atherton

Eventually Atherton was housed through Everyone In at a Westminster hotel before being moved to an AirBNB flat.

It’s here where Atherton saw the true benefits life without homelessness could have on his health – he previously stayed at Heathrow due to the access to medical attention and wheelchairs to help him with his chronic fatigue syndrome.

“I had a bedroom and a living space and a kitchen that I could cook in so my health went through the roof over three months,” says Atherton. “I ate really healthily – they provided me with Marks and Spencers vouchers as part of my food parcel.

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“That was perfect. For those three months, everything worked beautifully. That’s where the title of the film comes from. For 90 days it was like “Oh, well, this is how it works. This is how you do this.”

The vital intervention saved 266 lives during the first three months of lockdown according to University College London research and led to more than 26,000 people moving to more permanent accommodation according to the government’s last official management data released in January 2021.

The remarkable scale of the operation and its importance on the path to eradicating rough sleeping – as the Westminster government has pledged to do by 2024 – should be chronicled.

Matt Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, tells The Big Issue: “This film is important and timely, Paul and Owain have created something that the historical record needs, and will no doubt inform and entertain in equal measure.”

But the success was short-lived. By the end of the film, Paul is staying with a friend waiting to see if he is heading back to Heathrow. For the moment, he is still living in temporary accommodation.

The reality is that, for all the hope, homelessness is still with us.

homeless in Heathrow
Paul Atherton is hoping his film will be a vital way of chronicling a time when Westminster leaders came closest to ending street homelessness for good. Image: Chris Harvey

In fact, The Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign is warning the impact of Covid could lead to thousands who have seen their lives disrupted and incomes slashed at risk of homelessness this winter.

So why didn’t the promise and hope of the early days of Covid carry through to lasting change on the streets?

“We demonstrated that we can fix the problem. To chuck away the bureaucracy, and deal with the human problem. That was the success. The failure was everything else,” says Atherton.

“Every action the government has made in the past few weeks has demonstrated that the 2024 target is not even on their radar with the cut in the £20 universal credit uplift, bringing back evictions.

“I think one of the problems that we have as a society right now is that we don’t learn from our history. It’s very easy to expunge records online but it’s impossible when these things are captured in film and video diaries.

“The key message I want people to take away from this film is: “Yes, we can do this.”

90 Days of Hope: Why Britain Chose Not To End Homelessness will premiere at London’s Genesis Cinema on December 1 with all proceeds going to the Museum of Homelessness. Tickets are available here.

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