Hotels for homeless
At the beginning of lock down 15,000 rough sleepers were moved into hotels. But as many hotels re-open for business, what will happen to all of these rough sleepers?
Oliver*, one of our volunteers, used to be in the queue for food; now he comes in everyday to help prepare and hand out food at our daily food distribution. He has been placed in temporary housing as part of the government’s Everyone In scheme, which aimed to provide rough sleepers with safe temporary accommodation amid COVID-19. However, he has already seen some of his peers being asked to leave, and fears that his time there may also be limited. As hotels begin to re-open to the public, and government funding runs out, there is much uncertainty surrounding what will happen to the thousands like Oliver when the scheme comes to an end.
A recent article by The Guardian echoes these fears. Figures show that rough sleeping rose by 33% in the capital between April and June this year. This was at a time when charities thought most rough sleepers had been brought into hotels to protect them from the pandemic. Almost two-thirds of those recorded homeless during the same period were sleeping rough for the first time. This number does not include the hidden homeless, who are said to account for up to 62% of the homeless population and this number could be higher as some are illegally evicted despite the current eviction bans.
Social distancing rules have meant that those who were being housed in shared rooms may no longer be able to adhere to social distancing guidelines, and as a result have found themselves without a room at all. These rules have also reduced the capacity of many hostels and therefore their ability to accommodate rough sleepers. This, along with the furlough scheme and eviction bans coming to an end means that we may see a sharp rise in the numbers rough sleeping this winter. We have already been seeing increases in the number of people in our queues over the past months.
The economic uncertainty surrounding the virus has meant that more and more people are rough sleeping every day. The homeless tend to be more geographically mobile, often moving from location to location with no phone and no address. Track and trace is therefore virtually impossible with rough sleepers, and not only poses a threat to the homeless population, but the general public as a whole.
As winter approaches the risk of hypothermia, pneumonia and flu all present a threat to those sleeping rough. The congregate nature of most living arrangements, both formal, such as hostels, and informal, such as encampments mean that rough sleepers are even more vulnerable to the transmission of the virus. There is a high prevalence of long-term health conditions amongst the homeless, meaning they are at far higher risk of developing more serious manifestations of the virus. Rough sleepers aged under 65 experience a mortality rate 5-10 times higher than the general population, and COVID-19 is only set to increase this disparity with homeless deaths in the capital already up by 75% compared to the same time last year.
In a letter to the housing secretary from Sadiq Khan, the Mayor highlights the unenviable choice that many homeless Londoners may be faced with this winter: “either spending a freezing night on the streets or risk catching Coronavirus in a communal shelter”. He also states that there must be more, clear guidance from the government highlighting what they plan to do this winter to ensure the safety of the capital’s rough sleepers. The government’s lack of direction has left much uncertainty surrounding what will happen to many of the homeless this winter. The homeless deserve safety and protection as much as anyone. This is even more pertinent when we take into account the fact that many sleeping on our streets are amongst the most vulnerable.
“It would simply be callous and inhumane to tell rough sleepers that the price of staying off the streets this winter could be catching COVID-19”
However, it is important to remember that unlike the flu and the cold weather, homelessness is not seasonal. It is not enough to just consider how we protect some of the most vulnerable this winter, a more long-term, sustainable approach must be taken to ensure that we end homelessness.
“Moving people into hotels does not solve homelessness. They are still homeless. Hotels are not homes”
It has taken a global pandemic for people to sit up and realise the needs of the homeless, and while the hotels for the homeless and other schemes have proved crucial in saving and protecting many lives we must now look towards the future. What will happen to these people and their lives after lockdown?