During the first, surreal and anxious weeks of lockdown, I would go for a run or cycle, usually into central London, for my once-a-day, government-advised exercise. There in the streets and squares were people with a sleeping bag, a wheelie case of their possessions, without a home or shelter during the pandemic.
Even when the government intervened and hotels began to be used to house rough sleepers under the Everyone In scheme, a significant minority were not able to stay in one, with some evicted for anti-social behaviour, while others left because they disliked the people they were housed with. Organisations such as the Sikh group SWAT, Streets Kitchen and the Museum of Homelessness continued to support people who were on the street, as well as those who found themselves isolated or lacking food in hotels. The charity Homeless Link recently commented on the lack of specific support during the first wave for women, young people and survivors of domestic abuse.
Despite the ban on evictions introduced during the first wave, and subsequently extended, an estimated 20,000 households became homeless during the pandemic. This number may rise dramatically if the government decides to allow evictions to happen again after 20 September, when the ban is due to be lifted. Many of the hotels used to house rough sleepers have now reopened, and the government’s Everyone In scheme is due to end before the winter, leaving local government to meet any further costs. The Big Issue co-founder John Bird has warned that a large rise in homelessness combined with the economic impact of the pandemic would threaten the basic social fabric.
Now the challenge is what to do for homeless people as winter approaches, and the risk of a second wave and further lockdowns increases. The Metro Mayors Andy Burnham and Andy Street, representing Greater Manchester and the West Midlands respectively, have called for a 12-month scheme to place people in temporary accommodation, irrespective of immigration status.
Traditionally in winter, the UK’s network of winter night shelters opens to provide basic services during the cold months in buildings provided by churches, local government and charities. This year they will have to do this while ensuring social distancing, undoubtedly reducing the number of beds they can provide. A shelter in Kettering, Northamptonshire has already had to close because its dorm rooms were no longer suitable. Early on in the pandemic, a picture from Las Vegas showed homeless people who had been evacuated from a hostel and were sleeping in a car park following a Covid outbreak; the parking lines were used to space them out. Such an arrangement – dehumanising as it may be – will not be an option during winter in the UK.
We could see another version of the government’s Everyone In scheme, but hotels and other temporary accommodation were never designed for people to live long-term; physical and mental well-being erodes. There is a limit on how long councils are supposed to house people in temporary accommodation for exactly this reason. The quality of temporary housing can be terrible, a fact underlined by several investigations into hostels over recent years, including two within walking distance of my flat.
The government needs to learn from its response to the first wave. Carrying on the eviction ban and temporary accommodation-style schemes will help keep people safe, but they have already been shown to fall short. The next few months are an opportunity to put in place what is needed for the long-term, both to address the coronavirus pandemic and homelessness. That means a benefits system that can cover the cost of housing, renovating temporary accomodation, ensuring specialist support and services are available, and investing in social housing.