When London’s tier four lockdown was announced on Saturday, the news rocked Martin. After restrictions were lifted in the summer, the Scotsman was back to his pitch in Finsbury Park, in the north of the capital, selling the Big Issue.
“I thought Christmas was going to be great because I was back selling the Big Issue and this week I was going to save me up for Christmas,” says Martin, who recently turned 40.
The pandemic has been devastating for Martin, who is homeless and is currently living in the house of one of his Big Issue customers to keep off the streets.
Big Issue vendors are self-employed, and therefore not eligible for furlough.
“I’m still homeless,” he says, describing what it has been like for him sleeping rough in the past. “I got myself a camping tent as, comfort-wise, it’s better than sleeping directly on the concrete and more hygienic. But when it collapses it is very disorientating in the morning: you forget where you are and there are people walking by next to you.”
Thousands of others are sleeping rough on the streets of London this winter, a reality that has shattered any hopes early on in the year that the pandemic would go some way to eliminating rough sleeping through the unprecedented “Everyone In” scheme. So why did the scheme, now abandoned by the government, fail?
Three days after the UK government announced the first lockdown in March, the then housing minister Luke Hall sent a letter to local authorities in England urging them to house all rough sleepers within 72 hours.
The initiative, which aimed to stop a fatal spread of Covid-19 among those sleeping rough or in precarious accommodation and unable to self-isolate, was backed by a £3.2bn grant for councils to help them cope with coronavirus, and an additional £3.2m towards rough sleeping emergency services.
The policy, later known as Everyone In, was welcomed by homelessness charities which, after years of underfunded essential support services, saw this as a “landmark moment” , and built hopes of a Britain free of rough sleeping.
More than 15,000 people were housed in emergency accommodation between March and April and, according to a medical study, 266 deaths and 338 ICU admissions were prevented.
John Bird, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Big Issue and a crossbench peer, says the scheme was a relatively successful attempt to end rough sleeping – which is the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper homelessness crisis.
“Having been involved in homelessness and rough sleeping for many decades, it was the first time I saw any government responding in a concentrated sort of way by getting organisations to bring homeless people in from the streets,” he says.
Bird argues, however, that the scheme was a product of “enlightened self-interest” owing to the fear of Covid-19. “It wasn’t because [the Conservative government] had suddenly changed their minds about their sense of social responsibility for homelessness.”
When Everyone In ended in the summer and lockdown restrictions began to ease, the progress made during the first months of the pandemic started to recede and, in London, rough sleeping was once again on the rise.
The Greater London Authority Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) database recorded 3,444 rough sleepers in the capital between July and September, of whom 1,901 were new to the streets.
Although the figures are lower than in the same period last year, they are expected to rise as unemployment surges and evictions resume after the temporary ban on tenant evictions and court removals was lifted in September.
There was a 118 per cent increase in homeless LGBTQ+ people aged between 16 and 25 this year compared with the same period in 2019, according to Hayley Speed, the assistant director of services at Akt, which helps find safe housing for this group of young people. Some of these referrals came from 16- and 17-year-olds who felt trapped in homophobic, biphobic and transphobic households, which are often abusive.
“This is having an extremely negative impact on their mental well-being, with many young people approaching us with anxiety, feelings of loneliness and post-traumatic stress disorder because of the trauma they’ve experienced at home,” says Speed.
Fiona Colley, the director of Homeless Link, has called for Everyone In to be re-introduced to ensure people sleeping rough are safe and supported over the winter. She adds that the government should adopt a long-term preventative approach to help end rough sleeping for good.
“People under constant pressure to afford rent and bills on low incomes have been pushed into homelessness by job losses and other pressures caused by the pandemic,” she says.
“We are concerned there may be a spring spike in homelessness, as landlords are again able to take possession of their properties at the same time as the £20 per week Universal Credit uplift is due to end.”
Although the Everyone In scheme brought a temporary end to rough sleeping in England overnight, reversing the effects of a decade of underfunding the country’s homeless support services would require greater political will and investment.
Local authorities, which play an essential role in referring rough sleepers and homeless people to essential services, have been severely hit by central government funding cuts since the early 2010s, despite an increased demand for such services.
A study by homeless charities found that the budgets of English local authorities for homelessness services shrank by £0.7bn between 2008-9 and 2018-19. Aid for single homeless people, including prevention and support, was reduced by nearly £1bn in the same period. Support for nearly 9,000 homeless people disappeared following a decade of austerity measures.
The lack of affordable and council housing coupled with precarious private renting conditions put many others at risk of falling into homelessness and rough sleeping. Research by Generation Rent shows that 910,000 private renter families, including 1.82 million children, rely on benefits to pay their rent. Meanwhile analysis by the District Councils’ Network warns that almost half a million households are at high risk of becoming homeless as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.
“The government says that it’s going to invest in removing people from the streets so that they have flats and rooms. But in spite of what they say, the reality is not always the same,” Bird tells me.
The Big Issue founder adds that the worst is yet to come: 2.6 million people are expected to be unemployed in the UK by spring, the highest level since the financial crash in 2008. “Up until now, we’ve been looking out for the interest of Big Issue vendors. Now we have to look out for the interest of Big Issue readers.”
If the government wants to effectively tackle rough sleeping, Bird says, it will need to pay residents’ rent and mortgages to keep them housed, and it will need to invest in businesses, local authorities and charities to create new jobs and upskill those who have fallen out of work due to Covid-19.
“Until the British economy learns to invest in education, social training, training itself and all the other big things that support people out of poverty, then we’re going to always be people who are hit very hard by things like pandemics.”
Colley, of Homeless Link, adds that although additional investment such as the £151m announced in the Chancellor’s November Spending Review are welcome steps to help alleviate rough sleeping, she is concerned that this is only a short-term measure that will not succeed in preventing and ending homelessness.
“In failing to prioritise the issue with fully funded, sustainable services and a welfare safety net that works for everyone, we risk allowing the progress made during the original lockdown to slip away.”
Regardless of the tough prospects for homeless people in the capital, Martin is confident that things will improve and he will soon be back to his Finsbury Park selling pitch. Tier four will not last forever, and the roll-out of the vaccine gives him hope. “I’m trying to stay positive, am still motivated for next year. I’m sure 2021 will be better.”
Update 13.52, 11/1/21
This article initially stated Martin was currently sleeping rough. He is not at the moment, and this has been corrected.