Joy to all men? Why Christmas is such a dangerous time to be homeless in Cardiff

Christmas is a time of generosity, with shoppers and people celebrating flocking to the city centre, but what about the locals that usually make the pavements their home?

Rough sleeping in Cardiff city centre. Image credit: Hansa Tote

St John Street in Cardiff is transformed into a replica Lapland for the Christmas markets from 10 November until 23 December. The stalls provide shoppers the chance to splash the cash, do their gift buying, indulge in festive food, and warm up with a mulled wine.

A mere stone’s throw away from the lavish markets, hidden away like a secret are many homeless people, sleeping rough in the freezing temperatures. These men and women sit and watch people spend with frivolity while being ignored and looked straight through.

In October 2023, Cardiff Council’s cabinet member for housing and communities Councillor Lynda Thorne was quoted by Wales Online stating homelessness is going to get a lot worse before it gets better and recent statistics have proven her correct.

From 2020 until 2022, Wales suspended the rough sleeper count due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the Chief Statistician also deciding not to restart it in 2023 due to a lack of data availability. Instead, monthly management statistics have replaced it, with the latest figures from Welsh government estimating 135 rough sleepers in Wales.

Data collected from 2 November showed that there were 45 rough sleepers in Cardiff, but now the number is “Closer to 60” the councillor stated. This is double the number from the end of September, when the number of rough sleepers was 30.

As of September 2023, Cardiff had the second-largest population of rough sleepers in Wales, second only to Newport, which has five more people sleeping on the streets.

Donna, a homeless woman, said the biggest challenge she faces over the Christmas period is trying to get people to be nice

It’s the most dangerous time of the year

Christmas is an especially dangerous time of year to be sleeping rough according to Thorne.

She attributed the rise in danger not only to the below freezing temperatures, but also the increased foot traffic through the city with people visiting the city centre to celebrate the festive season. The councillor said not all the visitors are “Very benevolent”, and some, when they’ve had too much to drink can be quite abusive to rough sleepers.

The increased number of opportunities for people to get drunk over the festive season heightens the risk of intoxicated people abusing Cardiff’s homeless population.

Dean, (who chose not to disclose his last name) has been rough sleeping in a tent for just over three months following a stint in prison that left him without a home or a car. It also meant he lost his job as a painter and decorator. 

Dean has been a victim of the violence against rough sleepers, stating the other day a woman booted him in the face. It was “On purpose! She was drunk.”

Donna, a homeless woman, said the biggest challenges she faces over the Christmas period is “Trying to get people to be nice.”

The freezing temperatures also pose an enormous threat to rough sleepers over winter.

On 27 November, Cardiff-based man Richard O’Brien sadly died. He was the third rough sleeper to die in the city in 2023.

His friend and fellow rough sleeper Gary Mason told Wales Online that he tried to warm O’Brien up, but unfortunately it was too late.

The homeless charity Simon On The Streets says that for many rough sleepers, pre-existing health conditions are made worse in winter due to the cold weather. They also state that some people go to potentially dangerous measures to escape the cold, such as swapping sex for a bed.

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The impact of the Christmas markets

St John Street and the surrounding area is usually where many rough sleepers make their place of residence, so the markets leave many having to find other areas to sleep.

Dean stated the hardest part about being homeless in winter is finding somewhere to stay for the night, and the Christmas markets make this issue worse due to them spanning entire streets.

Dean said “It’s horrible, especially when you haven’t got nothing [sic]” spending all day watching people spend their money in the Christmas markets. The former decorator said that with the increased foot traffic “So many people look down” on him, taking a toll on his mental health.

Another rough sleeper named Tony (who also chose not to give his last name) feels the same. He said he struggles to understand how people can carelessly spend their money but “Can’t even be bothered to throw me one pence.” 

A Freedom of Information request found Cardiff Council received £25,000 from the Christmas markets in 2022.

What are the council doing?

Cardiff Council is also working alongside homeless charities such as the Wallich and the Huggard Day Centre doing outreach work, providing mental health support, counselling, and advice for those sleeping rough.

Cardiff Council is trying to help as many rough sleepers as possible get into temporary accommodation. Dean and his friend Sanchez say they were offered beds at the Huggard, but they feel safer sleeping on the streets. “Nobody wants to stay at hostels because you’ve got to sleep with two eyes open.”

What can you do to help the homeless this winter?

  • Make and distribute care packages. Find out what to include here.
  • Be kind! A warm smile is always welcome.
  • Donate food and warm clothes to food banks.
  • Buy a magazine such as the Big Issue or Dope from them.
  • Donate to charities trying to tackle homelessness.
  • Reach out to organisations such as StreetLink who might be able to help rough sleepers get off the streets for good.