Homelessness and Covid-19: The Government Response So Far

by Ben Fisher

The instructions from the government are clear. Stay at home and save lives. As most of us adjust to our new four-walled reality, some are relishing the opportunity to catch up on their favourite series, while others are dismayed at the prospect of a spring spent inside. However, as we get to grips with our new day-to-day life, the future for those without a home in the UK is far from certain.

Government figures published in February 2020 estimated 4266 people to be sleeping rough on a ‘typical’ night, with the BBC suggesting nearly 25,000 had gone without a roof over their head at least one night in the last year. Not only is this an unnervingly high number, but it also presents unique difficulties during a pandemic such as Covid-19. The homeless are especially vulnerable at times like these, owing to the increased likelihood of pre-existing conditions and the often cramped and shared accommodation typically made available to those sleeping rough. Likewise, day centres that usually provide shelter, information and advice for rough sleepers now have the potential to increase the risk of transmission. This is not to mention those with ‘no recourse to public funds’- those who are seeking asylum or have a limited immigration status and consequently are not usually entitled to housing support or benefits.

The government’s response to this potentially ticking bomb has -on paper- been very clear. Junior Housing Minister Luke Hall MP sent a letter on March 26 to every local authority leader, stating “It is now imperative that rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless are supported into appropriate accommodation by the end of the week”. This is a very commendable goal and included those usually without recourse to public funds; the government should be applauded for taking such a clear stance. It was followed by the creation of ‘Covid-19 rough sleeping coordination cells’ by every local authority in an attempt to house the homeless as quickly as possible. In addition to this, day centres and overnight hostels were due to wind down; allowing some or all of their staff to be deployed to COVID- PROTECT centres – emergency accommodation designed to allow the most vulnerable rough sleepers to self-isolate.

Unfortunately, the government response while very clear on paper, has been practically less so.

3 weeks on from that letter, the target of housing all rough sleepers in emergency accommodation has not been met. On the 14th of April, over 2 weeks after Mr. Hall’s letter, the Greater London Authority announced it had successfully housed 1,057 of London’s rough sleepers. Approximately 1/8th of the rough sleepers reported to have slept rough in London between April 2018 and March 2019. In an open letter to the Prime Minister signed by Crisis, Homeless Link, Thames Reach, The Passage, and other services tasked with helping the homeless argued access to the £1.6bn cash pot set aside for local authorities Covid-19 response was not always easy or certain. Causing some unwillingness among local authorities to spend on emergency accommodation. Islington’s housing chief conceded to the Islington Gazette the government had underestimated the task, adding the number of homeless since the outbreak had increased as the ‘hidden homeless’ – those couch surfing for example – no longer have anywhere to stay.

This sentiment is echoed by human rights journalists at Liberty Investigates. They tell the story of a homeless man showing symptoms of Covid-19, who upon contacting several appropriate government-funded services was told there was “no space for him”. Having phoned Hackney Migrant Centre (HMC), an outreach worker from the charity Thames Reach was finally dispatched. Finding the man unwell and sleeping on a bus, the symptomatic individual was once again told there was no local accommodation available. The man was finally found accommodation, but as an article in the Evening Standard points out, it was only after the charity published tweets that copied in local MPs regarding the case.

This story and the confusion currently surrounding funding for emergency accommodation, is symptomatic of the larger ambiguity apropos the implementation of the ambitious policy response outlined in Mr. Hall’s letter. Those not fortunate enough to have a safe place to spend the lockdown must be provided with emergency accommodation, to not do so successfully would be a failure of the government to its most vulnerable citizens. As Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) states – we all have the right to life. And where the behaviour of state agents, by its very nature, puts individuals at serious risk, those state agents can be deemed to be acting unlawfully and at odds with that right (ECHR Article 2 guidance). Government inaction, hesitancy and ambiguity in protecting the homeless during a pandemic, by its very nature puts them at risk and the government in contravention of Article 2. Further, allowing an individual exhibiting the symptoms of Covid-19 to sleep on the streets or in a bus (to take the Liberty Investigates example), and thus not enabling him to self-isolate, is both a violation of his rights and also the rights of anyone he might come into contact with. By law the government must act.

The way forward for the government response should be one of pragmatism. The provision of emergency accommodation is the obvious solution to self-isolation issues within the homeless community and this has begun to be addressed. However, with local authority budgets already tight there must be further specific guarantees as to the funding of emergency accommodation in order to fully prioritise it. Likewise, unused accommodation spaces such as empty hotels and offices must be fully utilised to be able to cope with the large number in need of housing; this was proposed by Louise Casey in a copy-cat of California’s policy allowing vacant hotels to be requisitioned into emergency accommodation – but has yet to take place on any meaningful scale. The government response on paper is right on the money in its emphasis on emergency accommodation, but it has yet to take any pragmatic steps towards making the policy a reality and this must be where the focus lies. Continuing inaction can only be viewed as unlawful in its endangerment of the homeless, and as a consequent the wider population.

 

Benjamin Fisher, 2nd year BA International Development Undergraduate.