As the snow swept in and temperatures plummeted to -6 degrees, Tony Muguma sought shelter from the big freeze earlier this month. He didn’t have a roof over his head to protect him.
Finding somewhere to sleep is a daily battle for Tony. Many people who frequent Hemel Hempstead town centre might recognise the 50-year-old.
For two years he made the Water Gardens car park his makeshift home. It’s where he feels safest, as there are video cameras watching over him while he sleeps at night
But now homeless Tony has been told he cannot return to the Water Gardens car park, or any council land at all. If he does, he could be sent to prison.
An injunction, enforced last May by Dacorum Borough Council, required him to move from the Water Gardens car park, but also prevents him from erecting his tent, storing his belongings or sleeping rough on any land which is owned by the council.
Last Thursday (March 8), Tony was summoned to court after the council prosecuted him for breaking that injuction in September, after he put up his tent on council land in Lawn Lane.
So what’s it like being homeless, and being told where you can or cannot sleep?
“The council are making it very very difficult,” Tony tells the Gazette, over a coffee at Tiki’s cafe on Marlowes, where homeless people are welcome to come in and have a warm drink or just take shelter if the weather is rough.
“They want me to walk about two miles to go somewhere that doesn’t belong to them,” he says.
Moving away from the town centre leaves Tony isolated from the six or seven other homeless people he converses with. They keep each other company, and look after each other’s possessions – as they are often stolen or cleared away.
Tony moved to Hemel from Tottenham at the start of the decade, and has been homeless for most of that time since. He also worries about his immigration papers that he says have been lost by authorities, meaning he can’t access benefits.
Previous accommodation which was arranged by his rehabilitation services was eventually sold off by the landlord, and Tony was left to fend for himself on the streets.
After being booted out of the Water Gardens car park, and then Lawn Lane, he had a tent and a cooker on land near Shendish Manor. But after spending two days in hospital following an epileptic seizure, he returned to find his possessions had disappeared.
It was, he said, an event that changed his life. With his comfort zone gone, what was next?
A court appearance, as it happens. He added: “The judge said on this occasion that it’s best to let me go, but next time it might be different.”
Temporarily, Tony has a room at homeless charity DENS, but more will have to be done to find a permanent solution, and help a man in need.
Not that the people of Hemel are idly standing by. He has a close network of friends who try their best to help him out.
Lynne Hussey, a volunteer with Hemel Hempstead Salvation Army who helps Tony, has said she is ‘staggered’ he is being prosecuted by Dacorum Borough Council. She tries to see Tony every day to help out and accompanied him to his recent court hearings.
“It doesn’t make sense what they are doing,” she says. “They’re prosecuting him, but also giving him shelter at their homeless hostel. They seem to say one thing then do another.”
Lynne says Tony’s health has rapidly declined recently, and that she has ‘no idea’ what will happen with him in the long-term.
She said: “When he was in the town centre he used to come in regularly for a shower and some food. But if he has to be outside of the centre then he becomes quite anxious and isolated.
“I don’t know what will happen once he has to leave DENS. I’m hoping that he can stay there a while. But he needs help.”
Dacorum Borough Council has said prosecuting Tony for rough sleeping on their land is ‘not the outcome it wants’.
The council first obtained an injunction against Mr Muguma in May last year, and said it had no choice but to take legal action as he had refused to move on from the council land on Lawn Lane.
A council statement said that smoke from Tony’s fire and the behaviour of his visitors was ‘causing distress to local residents who felt they could not have their windows open or freely use the park’.
The authority says that Tony did not know he was camping on council land until October, but says that they advised him of this in July.
Her Honour Judge Bloom told Luton County Court that Mr Muguma could face a prison sentence if he breaches the injunction again.
A council spokesman said: “Mr Muguma’s case is more complex than most. Due to his current immigration status, he has no recourse to public funds (NRPF). As a local authority, we do not have the discretion to spend public funds on NRPF clients and are therefore unable to provide accommodation.
“Our officers have worked with Mr Muguma over the past few years to provide support for his housing and immigration issues. DENS, who run our homeless hostel The Elms, have, at times, been able to provide him with temporary accommodation.
“This is not the outcome we want for anyone who becomes homeless, regardless of their situation.”