Homeless man in Norwich. Source: Geography.org.uk - Evelyn Simak Homeless man in Norwich. Source: Geography.org.uk - Evelyn Simak

COVID-19 has given the government the impetus to house the homeless, but this should not be a temporary solution, argues Norbert Lawrie

In the weeks since COVID-19 has taken its firm hold in Britain, charities and shelters for homeless people have reduced services or have been closed altogether. Experts have warned that the pandemic could hurt this vulnerable population and increase the spread of the disease. 

A large proportion of the estimated 320,000 homeless people in the UK (including approximately 9,000 rough sleepers) have underlying health issues that leave them vulnerable to contracting the virus and puts them at higher risk of death.

Race Against the Clock 

Even before the lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson, charities and local authorities had been engaged in a race against the clock to secure enough accommodation for the homeless population to be able to self-isolate. Closure of many winter night shelters has only added to the crisis on the streets.

Anxiety Levels

Rough sleepers are “hugely vulnerable” to coronavirus and the outbreak has “increased anxiety levels”, particularly among those now in temporary accommodation such as hostels, crash pads, and night shelters. Arguably, they are not equipped or adequately prepared to deal with this crisis. Additionally, key workers in hostels are themselves being put at risk.

Under a national action plan drawn up by Tony Blair’s former homelessness expert Dame Louise Casey, hotels and offices have been converted into emergency safe spaces to protect rough sleepers from coronavirus.

Louise Casey was hired by Boris Johnson over the issue of homelessness and was due to start her role after Easter. However, a deepening disquiet over government “sleepwalking” into a crisis related to homeless people’s vulnerability to COVID-19 led to her being drafted in to spearhead its response.

With a new wedge of money made available to all local authorities and an instruction to get homeless people off the streets during the first weekend of the lockdown, homeless people and rough sleepers have been taken off the streets and billeted in offices, hotels and any other appropriate spaces. This was funded from a £1.6bn local authorities COVID-19 response award made before the instruction. 

Not everyone has been taken off the streets and many have been overlooked. Some, for reasons only known to the individual, have decided that it was better to self-isolate in a hidden skip or camp away from built-up areas in towns and cities. Those individuals are being supported by many locals and grassroots groups. 

In a departure from normal rules, the government also stressed that people classified as having “no recourse to public funds” (a status given to people who are seeking asylum, or who have a limited immigration status), and who normally have no right to housing support or benefits, should also be helped with emergency accommodation. 

While some of these measures are a welcome step in the right direction, it should be stressed that the accommodation is only temporary. Rough sleepers are being told they should expect to be turned back out onto the streets at the end of the lockdown.

Grassroots Response

A leading London grassroots group issued an urgent response and appeal to the crisis on the streets. They describe themselves as a coalition of organizations working in various aspects of homelessness, outreach support, and activism. They already work across London and have been supporting each other since the pandemic began.

The coalition is made up of The Outside Project, Streets Kitchen, The Refugee Community Kitchen, Simon Community, Street Vet, and Museum of Homelessness.

They published a national plan for hotel access amidst what they claim is silence from the mainstream homelessness sector and authorities.

“We are pleased that the plan has been taken forward but we are deeply concerned that we are excluded from communications and planning and we are already seeing specific examples of this happening. By default, this also means that the people we work with are being excluded, even though they are arguably very at risk from the pandemic.”

“We are and have been mobilizing in support of our communities. These include LGBTIQ+ homeless people, people who are homeless with pets, people who are refugees and migrants and are homeless, and people who are homeless, many of whom often feel themselves to be outside the reach of the commissioned homelessness sector. Our first priority is to these groups and we are currently maintaining the services we provide as well as sharing resources to provide more mobile outreach to people who are still on the streets.”

Damaging and Costly

Homelessness is an extremely damaging and costly problem. The government has been spending huge amounts over the last few years trying to put out the fires it causes, only to let those fires ignite over and over again. It’s a false economy. If we decided to build more houses, we might change a lot of lives and save a lot of money. 

Over the years of campaigning, I have often been reminded of George Orwell’s groundbreaking research and investigation into poverty and homelessness. It is close to a century since Orwell observed how government and society treated the homeless with contempt, by punishing them for their condition or pretending that they did not exist. Shortly after returning from the north of England, he joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a more radical version of mainstream Labour. 

Among its manifesto policies was a commitment to a substantial increase in unemployment allowance, sufficient to ensure that the unemployed would never be reduced to rough sleeping. This appealed to Orwell as he had recently witnessed the effects of homelessness. By the time he joined the ILP, it had disaffiliated from Labour because the latter had let down the working classes, especially the dispossessed and unemployed, by not committing money to the fundamental objective of keeping people off the streets.

Eighty-five years later and a leader emerged from the Labour Party with a manifesto that would have made a good start towards challenging and changing a system that still treats the homeless very much the same. The question is: will the Labour Party now stick with that manifesto pledge to eradicate rough sleeping within the first term of the next Labour government?

Homeless Families 

There has also been an increase in homeless families housed by local authorities in temporary accommodation, rising from 50,000 in 2010 to 78,000 in 2017.  In London alone, there are an estimated 225,000 “hidden homeless” people aged 16-25, arranging their temporary accommodation with friends or family.

Living in poverty means facing constant insecurity and stress, worrying about covering the bills and keeping a secure home, being buffeted by the currents of low pay, high costs and poor health, often whilst caring for others. Financial insecurity and fear for the future will be at the forefront of people’s minds. At a time when people are being asked to spend more time at home, the government should have ensured that all of us have somewhere stable to live. That is not asking too much in the sixth richest country in the world.

More than a million households in England are stuck on social housing waiting lists, according to the homeless charity Shelter. This follows a net loss of more than 17,000 social homes in the last year. 

In the last decade, there has been a net loss of almost 60,000 social homes through sales and demolitions. They have not been replaced.

If the funds being used to pay for private hospital beds, thus lining the pockets of the rich, were to be used for people on low incomes, the elderly and families, we could afford to support society properly during this crisis.

The obscenity of the government paying £2.4 million a day to the private companies is beyond belief. Had Labour and Jeremy Corbyn won the general election in December, it would likely have been a different story.

Broken System

If this system is broken, how might we create a better one? There may be a surprisingly simple answer: give homeless people a home. A proper home. Give them a roof over their heads, their own front door, and their own address.

These are scary times and, in many respects, the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing the true nature of society. 

COVID-19 is exposing the capitalist system for what it is – the greatest deceitful pretenses and crime ever perpetrated on humankind. It is showing us how we need to live if we are to have any hope of progressing as a human and civilised society. More than ever before now is the time for socialists to present to our family, friends, and fellow-workers the ideal of a society ordered to human well-being and human need.

Norbert Lawrie

Norbert Lawrie is a former homeless advice worker and campaigner of many years standing. He has been an executive member of CHAR the former campaign for single homeless people, and has been instrumental in gaining council tenancies for hundreds of homeless people including children living in hostel accommodation. Norbert maintains an ongoing relationship with the London street homeless and the squatting movement.