It is not easy getting a good night's sleep at Heathrow as any jetsetter will tell you. For a homeless person the noise, announcements, glare from lights and bustling crowds are combined with the constant fear of being discovered by security patrols and police - it is illegal to sleep at Heathrow if you have no plane to catch.

Yet hundreds of rough sleepers are found mingling among the bored children and anxious lovers in coffee shops and seating areas every year. Until last February, most were sent on their way back out onto the harsh streets by reluctant police with no choice but to enforce Heathrow's by-laws. Some like Parar Sharwan, a Punjabi farmer who sold his family land to come to England, keep sneaking back, the comfort and warmth and limbo status of an airport preferable to real street sleeping.

Parar had spent countless nights at the airport over several years after coming to England in 2003. He paid £114 for the journey and a guaranteed job but when he first arrived in Slough his passport and documents were taken. As work became more difficult to find, the 33-year-old slipped into alcoholism and lived a half-life flitting between the streets of Southall and the airport.

"You have no blanket and no house, you are drinking just so that you can sleep" he recalls. "If people had not helped me I would be going back in a coffin."

Luckily for Parar, his drop towards rock-bottom coincided with the launch of the Heathrow Rough Sleepers Pilot Programme in February 2008, believed to be the first of its kind in the UK but drawing on methods used in Chicago.

It is run by Heathrow Travel Care, a team of dedicated social workers who also deal with all of the emotional traumas taking place around the terminals as new, confused migrants arrive or people fall apart when their plane is cancelled.

Brought together by service manager Sandie Cox (pictured), agencies like the police, council and charities have combined to come up with 'creative solutions' to the 'revolving door' of homelessness at Heathrow without turning it into a magnet for the lost and desperate.

"Someone might come to the airport once and it has an association for them," says the teacher turned social worker. "It then becomes a bit of a cycle and they can't see any point in going anywhere else."

Two outreach workers from Broadway homeless charity patrol the airport on Tuesdays and Thursdays with security on the look-out for rough sleepers. But rather than send them away, the project aims to bring them back into the system, putting them in touch with old connections that may entitle them to housing or help, or in Parar's case, acting as advocate for meetings with the Foreign Office and Border Agency to get paperwork together that allows him to board a plane to India.

It is funded by BAA, Hillingdon Council, the Met Police and ran on just £27,000 for 18 months. The project's track record - around 360 people have been helped to get home, find housing or qualify for other services and Heathrow police report a drop in numbers of rough sleepers - has impressed the Department for Communities and Local Government which will help it to continue for another 18 months.

Sandie is keen to stress the emphasis on challenging rough sleepers' lifestyle choice and not 'colluding' with their homelessness. She says: "Some of these people have a lot of potential, are smart and articulate people who through life circumstances and the way life has turned out for them, things are not going so well for them right now. Giving someone a map and the bus fare is not always enough."

Years of alcohol abuse have taken their toll on Parar, but when he is fit enough to go back he has a plan to start a taxi business from the Punjab to Delhi with his brother-in-law. His body was so wasted by drinking that when Sandie shows him to police who first picked him up they do not recognise him.

He urges fellow migrant workers to make sure their documents are in order before they get here. People in India still believe "money grows on trees and the streets are paved with gold" in Britain and he hopes his story is a warning to others.

"I want to stay but I have to go. Without the papers it's not worth coming here," he says. "All I wanted was permission to work in this country, I wanted to earn money. But coming here illegally is not fair on the people who already live here, people in Southall who can't get jobs because the illegal workers are cheaper."

His next trip to Heathrow will not be to sleep but to fly home towards a new start.


Lucy Proctor is raising money for housing and homelessness charity Shelter by running the Bath Half Marathon on March 15. To sponsor her and help Shelter support people like Patrick go to  www.justgiving.com/lucyhomelessrun

Homeless in Hounslow 1: The Eastern European workers

Homeless in Hounslow 2: The ghosts who walk our streets