Becky Ross on the grim reality of the government’s homelessness response
The homelessness sector is at crunch point. In March 2020, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, the Government scheme called for ‘everybody in’ and the media rushed to commend them for “ending homelessness”. However, six months on, the media rush has stilled and councils and charities are fighting to keep rough sleepers inside as 145,000 people placed in hotels due to Covid-19 are at risk of eviction.
In some boroughs across England these evictions have already happened. In Worthing, the Chatsworth hotel has closed with 14 people placed in ‘alternative accommodation’, whilst a question mark is left over what has happened to the other 36. Westminster closed hotels on the 3rd July, giving one offer of ‘alternative accommodation’ with one hotel remaining open for people with no recourse to public funds (NRPF). In Manchester, the council is supporting 178 people still in hotels, stating the others have been “moved on”.
The picture is chaotic. Councils across England scramble in varied responses with no direct or co-ordinated advice from central government and ambiguous references to funding. There is even less clarity for people with NRPF status. As the Independent reports, the “Home Office [is] breaking the law by leaving destitute asylum seekers homeless“.
In the first weeks of the pandemic I supported people in hotels over the phone. The environment they described was hectic. They spoke of a high risk of infection, living around abuse and crime, isolated with little support. The temporary nature of these environments was all too evident as I listened to people’s fear, not knowing when and where they would be moved.
This fear was encapsulated when a man in one hotel died in hospital for “unknown causes”. As I spoke to others in the hotel to offer emotional support, there were mixed reactions. Friends were grateful that this man’s last minutes were not spent on the street, but horrified to realise their own vulnerability exaggerated by the pandemic.
The sad truth of the ‘alternative accommodation’ that councils offer is that it is short-term and unsafe. It re-traumatises and dehumanises those experiencing homelessness by constantly moving them. This accommodation is not the long-term housing that people need.
Government policy and funding endlessly underestimates the scale and complexity of the homelessness issue. Like many schemes announced during the pandemic, ‘everybody in’ was a step we thought we would never see the current right-wing government take; but it still refuses to acknowledge that homelessness is a political choice, a consequence of decisions to cut social welfare budgets. The government fail to understand the brutal reality that people experiencing homelessness face, and fail to include them in the discourse on how to solve it.
There is immense pressure on frontline workers to re-accommodate people but the housing market makes it near impossible. All councils are fighting for the extremely limited amount of private rented accommodation that does not discriminate against people claiming benefits. Social housing is almost non-existent, with London council waiting lists as long as six years. Migrants without access to public funds are the most destitute, with no hope of being housed long-term and with good reason feeling paranoid that they will be reported to the Home Office and deported.
Crisis reports that it would cost roughly £282 million to place people in emergency hostels for the next 12 months.
Ten years of austerity has left the public sector in disarray. Social services are inundated and take months to respond. Mental health facilities at full capacity refuse to help people who have been sectioned. Workers are being asked to perform miracles in pressurised environments, with low pay, no breaks, lack of resources and no guarantee of a job in the future.
A further half-a-million people are at risk of becoming homeless due to job cuts and rent arrears caused by the pandemic. As winter nears, charities warn of the risk of an all-time high of rough sleeping.
Campaign groups and unions are organising. Streets Kitchen, London Renters Union, Homes for All, Labour Homelessness Campaign, Unite Housing Workers and IWGB have been fighting to fill the gaps that the government has left. These groups continue to push for the systemic change this crisis calls for, including a widespread demand that NRPF legislation be scrapped and councils utilise the 216,000 empty homes in England to house those in need.
To enable people with NRPF status to be securely accommodated, local authorities need funding backed by clear policy and legislation. They need government support to build social homes, repossess empty buildings and provide wraparound support for people experiencing homelessness. Local authorities must be radical, fight alongside campaigners who urge them to adopt ‘no cuts budgets’ and directly challenge the unclear and chaotic response of central government. Labour councillors and members must also join the fight. It cannot be left to campaign groups alone. The ’everyone in’ strategy was a step forward. While people are urged to go back to work as usual, the homelessness sector must not go back to usual. Local government must keep #EveryoneIn and end deaths on our streets once and for all.