Everyone In?

Living during the Coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges for all of us: the challenge of staying safe has been even more acute for those without a home.

On the 23rd March, the Prime Minister announced that Britain was being placed in lockdown due to an imminent threat to life presented by the spread of a potentially deadly virus. Not just in Britain, but across the world, the message was unequivocal, we all had to 'stay home to stay safe and save lives.'

Most people, even those with a home to stay safe in, experienced some sense of fear. There was also, we were told, a need for enhanced hygiene routines and a clear instruction that anyone feeling unwell should self-isolate to prevent the spread of the virus.
A sudden spotlight was shone on the acute vulnerability of those who had no homes and, in particular, those who were sleeping rough on our streets. Many people who are homeless also have underlying health problems. The often-congregate nature of their lifestyle either on the streets, or in temporary hostels with shared facilities, would make it impossible for them to maintain the strict regimes being recommended by government. Any infection within their midst would spread rapidly. The drop in facilities provided by charities, which they often rely on, were abruptly closed as the risk of transmission was just too high.

There was an urgent need for a response which wouldn't just keep people who were homeless safe but would control the spread of this virus and help to keep all of us safe. Recognising this, all of the governments throughout the UK sought to ensure emergency accommodation was available to bring 'everyone in' from the streets and to have a single room which would allow them to self-isolate.

The capacity of existing providers of temporary accommodation to respond to this challenge was however significantly reduced.

Collectively these issues meant sufficient capacity simply didn't exist to bring 'everyone in'. Block bookings were made for empty hotel rooms. Previously busy with business people and tourists these were brought into use to provide a place of safety for some of the most excluded people in society.

Beyond the most visible problem of those sleeping rough on the streets there were many thousands more who lived precariously, in insecure or overcrowded housing. Often referred to as the 'hidden homeless' they include sofa surfers i.e. people who move between friends/family often spending only a few days at each place and then moving on. During the first month of the pandemic the number of people contacting our already busy Housing Helpline quadrupled. Many were calls from people in this situation who were now living in cars, garden sheds and tents; again, not environments conducive to staying safe and saving lives. Also notable were the high number of calls from people living in privately rented accommodation who had been asked to leave. This included people affected by the virus; key workers who because of their exposure were seen as 'high risk' and people who had lost their jobs who landlords/housemates feared would be unable to pay their rent.
Without further government intervention it was clear there would be a great deal more people losing their homes during the pandemic, placing further pressure on already stretched services. Emergency laws were passed to place a temporary halt on evictions. Additional allowances were made available to help people meet their housing costs. Those with mortgages, including landlords, were offered payment holidays, initially for three and then for a six-month period.

Did it work?

Credit must be given for the concerted and genuinely collaborative effort which has taken place. Throughout lockdown, the respective authorities and charities came together to dramatically reduce the number of people who experienced homelessness during this time. Homelessness teams were supported by dedicated nursing and health services who provided bespoke services to the homeless population. Together they successfully protected some of our most marginalised families and individuals and they undoubtedly saved lives.
In other countries across the world many thousands of homeless people have died. Here in the UK, official statistics suggest the number is less than twenty and in NI (where our own charity is based) there have been no deaths amongst the homeless population. This is an outcome which all of those involved in the provision of health and homeless services in UK can feel rightly proud of.
As a society, we should feel less proud that there were people sleeping on our streets and living in such poor quality, insecure accommodation that emergency intervention was necessary to keep them, and the wider public, safe from coronavirus.

Back to business as usual?

As hotels revert to business as usual and their rooms are reclaimed for their normal occupants the worry is that, as emergency measures are phased out, the crisis will return and worsen. Some people are already beginning to return to the streets, creating a demand for drop-in services, many of which are still unable to safely re-open.

Our Helpline is taking calls from an unusually high number of people who find themselves homeless as their relationships have broken down under the additional pressure imposed by lockdown. The temporary protection for renters and homeowners will be phased out and the anticipated economic downturn will amplify an already developing situation. All households will be affected however, as before, rough sleepers and struggling renters who were under most stress before the pandemic are at the greatest risk.
Lives have been saved, evictions and destitution have been avoided in the short term, however coronavirus is still out there and there is no guarantee of a vaccine to bring the threat it poses to an end. A public health emergency has issued a stark reminder of the importance of having a home and the spotlight has been placed on a system which fails too many people in this regard.
The determination which characterised the crisis response needs to be maintained moving forward. The previously missing ingredients weren't just additional resources (homelessness and poor housing costs the Treasury millions of pounds each year), it was political will and genuine collaborative working between charities and all the relevant authorities which made the difference. It was recognition also, that the underlying problems of insecurity and affordability had to be tackled.

For decades many have known homelessness is not an inevitable nor intractable problem. It took just a few short weeks, faced with arguably the worst public health crisis in over a century, to show what can be done.

There can be no return to business as usual. The biggest challenge is yet to come: how to maintain the momentum to deliver the changes necessary to support people in the longer term and to provide enough secure and affordable homes to bring 'everyone in' for good.

janet wraySr Janet Wray