By Zoe Tabary
LONDON, July 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An inviting massage table, a snug chair, a sunlit field of grass – this is not a holiday resort but one of London's famous double-decker buses, which this summer will house up to 40 homeless people.
A fleet of four decommissioned buses has been converted by British-based social enterprise Buses4Homeless into a shelter for homeless people, with spaces for sleeping, dining, cooking, job training and relaxing.
"The most crucial thing for anyone is shelter, having a place to stay," said Buses4Homeless founder Dan Atkins, from the buses' temporary site in Croydon, south London.
"And that's what's sorely missing in London as the number of beds in night shelters gets slashed and housing remains unaffordable for too many," he added.
Homelessness has been rising in England for nearly a decade amid rising private rents, a freeze on welfare benefits and a shortage of social housing.
Rough sleeping in London rose by 18% over the last year, hitting a decade high of 8,855 people, a database funded by the mayor of London showed in June, the majority of whom were new to bedding down in parks or doorways.
Atkins, who devised the initiative after seeing a friend sleeping in a coach luggage compartment, said he wanted to "understand how and why people become homeless, and help reintegrate them into society".
The buses – which were donated by transport company Stagecoach – will provide a three-month programme during which passengers can learn to cook, receive basic business training or enjoy a yoga class.
Slouched on a wooden bench on the grass-covered top of the fleet's "wellbeing bus", a man in his fifties animatedly types on his mobile phone.
James, homeless since threats from a drug-dealing neighbour forced him to leave his Brixton flat last October, has been sleeping on one of the buses after meeting Atkins – although the shelter has not officially opened yet.
"It was either leave (my home) or end up dead ... but the housing association never found me another flat," said James, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
He finds the bus safer and more comfortable than regular night shelters, "where not every bed has its own power socket, so when you go looking for a spot to charge your phone your stuff can get stolen".
Each "sleeping bus" can house up to 20 people in pods, which are equipped with storage space, a power socket and blinds for privacy.
Atkins said he expected the buses would mostly accommodate men, who made up the majority of the homeless population, but that would like to create more spaces where women could feel safe.
James, who has always worked as a community volunteer, said he hoped the revamped buses would show the "real stories of homeless people".
"If you watch the news today, every homeless person is either on spice (a drug) or a beggar," said James, a former rough sleeping coordinator for Westminster City Council, flicking his dreadlock ponytail over his shoulder.
"But my situation proves that you can be working with homeless people one minute and be on the streets the next."
On the fleet's "learning bus", passengers can sign up to anything from Microsoft Office skills courses to presentation workshops.
Jonathan Pfahl, head of training and mentoring firm Rockstar Group, which will be running the courses, said they aim to make homeless people more employable and link them to job opportunities.
"And the genius thing with a bus is that we can take it wherever it's needed ... so park it in front of a job centre, for example."
A spokesman for London Mayor Sadiq Khan would not comment on the bus initiative, but said that "record numbers of people continue to be forced onto the streets".
"It will not be possible to truly end homelessness without welfare cuts being reversed, sustained investment in health services, and a step change of investment in new social housing," he said in emailed comments.
If the bus shelter project proves successful, Atkins would like to convert some of the vehicles into two to three-bedroom flats for homeless people.
"There's a plethora of buses that will end up in the scrapyard as they don't meet the requirements of London's ultra low emission zone ... so why not upcycle as many as we can?"
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🚌 The social enterprise @buses4homeless converts decommissioned double decker buses into homeless shelters The shelters offer a bed in addition to cooking, counselling and job training Head to thisisplace.org to read our story #PropertyRights #Homelessness #London #DoubleDecker #SocEnt
(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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