Sun-bleached food packaging and the fading remnants of a campfire canvas are the only clues that people used to live in woodland near Cardiff Bay. Residents nearby said the homeless men living in Hamadryad Park had left shortly after Aaron French-Willcox, 19, was found cold and unresponsive in a tent at an encampment in the early hours of 13 February.
French-Wilcox, who had type one diabetes and died from diabetic ketoacidosis, started living in one of the three tents at the site after he was reportedly caught taking the synthetic cannabinoid spice at a homeless shelter three weeks before his death.
“He didn’t belong out here,” said a Cardiff rough sleeper who knew him. “He was a nice guy. Goodhearted. Just a decent 19-year-old.”
The teenager was one of a growing number of homeless people in temporary and semi-permanent encampments throughout the UK, in what has become an increasingly common fixture of British life, living underneath bridges, clearings in woodland and quieter corners of city centres.
Although the number of people in encampments is not fully recorded by existing statistics, the homeless charity Crisis said more than 9,000 people would have spent last Christmas in tents or cars, or on trains or buses, on top of the thousands who sleep rough every night, an increase of more than 57% since 2011.
The official rough sleeper under canvas count in England – widely considered a big underestimate – has strict rules about what constitutes a rough sleeper. People living in encampments are not necessarily included in the 4,751 people who bedded down outside overnight in 2017.
The government is expected to release its strategy for tackling street homelessness within the next few days. The strategy aims to halve rough sleeping by 2021 and eliminate it by 2027.
In the past year, encampments of varying sizes have been reported in cities and towns including Bristol, Milton Keynes, Cardiff, Manchester, Oxford, Sheffield, London, Northampton, Cambridge, Stoke-on-Trent, Leeds, Glasgow and Exeter.