The 'growing issue' of homeless people sleeping in bins

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Media captionCCTV shows a homeless man being tipped into a bin lorry compactor - waste management firm Biffa's head of safety Tim Standring describes what happened

The number of homeless people found sleeping rough in recycling bins is growing, according to one of the biggest waste management firms in the UK. Why is this happening?

"In the park, you do get abused and kicked and stuff like that. The other night… a few young guys were walking past, and one of them just booted me right in the face.

"But in the bins you can hide so nobody can see you. It's kind of warm, nobody knows you are there," George explains on the streets of Bristol.

He has been homeless since he lost his engineering job before Christmas, leaving him unable to pay the rent.

George is one of a growing number of people in the UK found sleeping rough in large commercial recycling bins, according to the waste management firm Biffa.

Image copyright Biffa
Image caption The number of people rough sleeping in recycling bins is rising, Biffa says

In the year to March 2014 it discovered people in its commercial bins on 31 separate occasions. A year later that had risen to 93, and in the current year - which runs to the end of March - the figure stands at 175 so far.

Biffa believes its higher figures are a result of a combination of factors, including better reporting, a rise in rough sleeping and shops recycling more dry waste such as cardboard and plastic - making the bins more attractive places in which to shelter.

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The firm Veolia also says it is trying to raise awareness of the problem and get its staff to record the number of rough sleepers. They found two in January.

Jason Marriott, from the charity Framework Housing Association, says rough sleeping is "dangerous and isolating" and "damages people's mental and physical health".

"Contrary to what many people believe," he adds, "most people don't sleep in shop doorways [but] tend to hide themselves away in places where they feel safer and are less visible to other people".

Mr Marriott has been working with bin lorry drivers to help protect rough sleepers, but says such programmes can only do so much when "services designed to help homeless people are being cut back".

Image caption Jason Marriott says, while some rough sleepers do sleep in doorways, most do not

Homeless Link, which represents homeless charities, claimed 41% of accommodation projects in 2015 had "experienced a decrease in their funding since the last financial year", with 40% reporting no change and 8% having an increase in funding.

But homelessness minister Marcus Jones said the government has "increased central funding to tackle homelessness over the next four years to £139 million".

George says he has tried to get into the local homeless shelter, but "there is a big waiting list, a huge queue... The staff bend over backwards to help, but there's no space."

The only dedicated night shelter in Bristol has 18 beds. It says it turns away that many again on a typical night, and sometimes many more.

Risk of fatality

The situation is particularly serious because sleeping in recycling bins can have severe consequences.

Depending on the type of collection truck used, the containers can be lifted six metres high before the contents are tipped into the vehicle's compactor.

George vividly remembers the "clank, clank, clank" of one truck nearing a bin in which he was lying, half-asleep. He managed to jump out in time, but other incidents have been fatal.

Figures from the Environmental Services Association show there have been at least eleven deaths since October 2010 caused by people sheltering or sleeping in bins.

The remains of Matthew Symonds, 34, were found at Biffa's plant in Avonmouth in mid-2014. He is thought to have slept in a bin at the back of a shopping centre in Swindon, before one of the firm's drivers picked up the container.

Mr Symonds had been turned away from a homeless shelter after arriving too late to enter.

Image copyright Wiltshire Police
Image caption Matthew Symonds' remains were found at a Biffa waste depot in Avonmouth on 1 August 2014

Biffa's head of safety Tim Standring believes the company could not have acted differently to avoid the "absolutely devastating" outcome.

"We've got evidence that the driver checked the bin," he continues. "And that's the worrying thing about this, no matter how well we check our containers there's absolutely no guarantee that we're going to find everybody."

The company says it is working to ensure its drivers report all instances of people found "in or around" waste containers, but it also says its customers - businesses and shops - have a responsibility to lock their bins overnight to stop people getting injured.

These customers could be taken to court if the locks are not used, but in practice this does not happen.

When we joined driver Barry Croker on one of his morning rounds, around half the bins we came across at the back of one set of shops were left open and completely unlocked.

The firm now trains its drivers to look for signs that homeless people have been sleeping in the area and to double-check each bin before it is lifted up.

Image caption Driver Barry rummages through cardboard to check for rough sleepers

"There could be clues - could be cigarette packets, or bottles of alcohol [outside the container]," Barry explains, as he tests each lid.

When one opens, he shifts the top layers of cardboard and plastic from side to side, before banging on the side.

No-one is inside on this occasion, but we have heard from drivers who - despite warnings - have found the same people sleeping in the same bins night after night.

Image caption A truck prepares to tip a commercial bin's contents into its compactor

All the firm's trucks now contain cameras in the vehicle's hopper - or compactor - that allow drivers to see what is being tipped inside.

If someone is hiding in the bottom of a container drunk or passed out they could still be missed by initial checks, so this final stage is designed to add an extra safeguard.

The only sure-fire way to reduce the risk, however, is to cut the number of people sleeping rough.

Figures released by the Department for Communities and Local Government in February 2016 suggest England has seen an increase of 30% in a year, to 3,569.

Bristol recorded the second highest total of all local authorities, behind Westminster, which may mean - for now - the city's problem is only getting worse.

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