Homeless and Living at the Airport Some people you see in airports don't plan on going anywhere. Homeless advocate Howard Sinclair says there are tribes of itinerant Londoners who call Heathrow Airport home, and that they're lured there by shelter, food and anonymity.
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Homeless and Living at the Airport

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Homeless and Living at the Airport

Homeless and Living at the Airport

Homeless and Living at the Airport

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Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport, where homeless outreach workers have documented at least 100 transient residents. Edmond Terakopian/AFP Photo/Getty Images hide caption

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Edmond Terakopian/AFP Photo/Getty Images

Some people you see in airports don't plan on going anywhere. Homeless advocate Howard Sinclair says there are tribes of itinerant Londoners who call that city's airport home, and that they're lured there by shelter, food and anonymity.

"During the day, it's much easier, there's such a hubbub," says Sinclair, CEO of Broadway, a London nonprofit that helps homeless people.

At night — though Heathrow Airport does officially close — Sinclair says there are camps of passengers waiting for flights who take to the floor to rest. "[Homeless] people come with bags and bed down on the seats in the same way as passengers," Sinclair says.

That terminal floor can be much more attractive than the alternative. Sinclair says that in London, as in many other major cities, "sleeping in the rough" — or on the streets — is a horrible option, resulting in an average mortality age of 42 years old. "It's cold, it's wet, it's miserable, it's not safe," Sinclair says.

But Heathrow's homeless aren't just seeking shelter and anonymity — there are also amenities. Sinclair says waiting passengers leave drinks and food. And bathroom facilities — ever shave when you get off the plane? — are readily available.

Those advantages aside, Sinclair stresses that living at Heathrow is not a sustainable situation, nor does it necessarily result in longer, better lives. He says the population at Heathrow mirrors that of London's other homeless population: it's 85 percent male, there is a preponderance of mental illness, and people are doing whatever they can to get by.

"It's not an existence really," Sinclair says.

What Are Police Doing to Help?

U.S. airports at times see the same waves of itinerant sleepers. The difference in London, Sinclair says, is that officials — responding to a growing population — aren't just evicting people, they're working with experts like Sinclair to give support and reconnect the homeless with what Sinclair calls their places of origin.

In the past three months, Sinclair says he's aided and advised over 100 people from an average total population of 10 to 15 people a night. Of those 100, Sinclair says he's rehoused six in the past six weeks or so.

That said, sleeping in the airport isn't a fast road to the good life. "You don't get your services any quicker by going to Heathrow," Sinclair says. "All we can do is work with people and point them back to where they're from, really."