On The Coronavirus Frontlines, Eradicating Homelessness Is Imperative

This week in Glasgow, a homeless shelter closed its doors after a staff member and a user tested positive for COVID-19, leaving many of its occupants sleeping on the streets. Although the Glasgow City Council asserted it was “busy putting in place contingency plans to reduce risk to vulnerable homeless people”, the Guardian later reported that individuals whom the council is not statutorily required to accommodate were left out. The CEO of Glasgow City Mission said, “there are a significant number of highly vulnerable persons in our city whose status provides no recourse to public funds who will also require immediate attention and accommodation.”


The UK is one of many countries drastically ramping up the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 20th, it closed all non-essential services including restaurants, bars and gyms as part of a nationwide movement encouraging the population to stay at home. However, for many, this act is a luxury. Shelter, a leading homelessness charity, estimated that nationwide, 320,000 people were homeless as of December 2019. They also report that 4,500 prepare to sleep on the streets every night, although these figures are widely assumed to be an undercount. Glass Door reports that in London alone, 2,900 individuals sought emergency shelter in the winter of 2019. In Scotland, Shelter estimates that one household becomes homeless every 18 minutes. 


In light of new recommendations on ‘social distancing’, emergency shelter accommodation is inadequate to prevent the spread of the virus. Glasgow City Mission contends that “to willfully continue to house people in shelter style environments is, for us, to demonstrate contempt, not compassion.” There is no more relevant time to discuss eradicating homelessness as both a moral and societal imperative. Hygiene on the streets is difficult, and people experiencing homelessness are three times more likely to have a severe respiratory problem, rendering them extremely vulnerable. At present, up to 45,000 ‘self-contained’ spaces are needed. 


The UK Government, although slow in its initial response, has taken some positive steps to protect the most vulnerable. Crisis, another nationwide homelessness charity, welcomed the ban on evictions and increase of universal benefits. UK Hotels are earmarked to become shelters under a new coronavirus plan, in which 300 people will move into rooms rented from the Intercontinental Hotels Group in London this weekend. However, many charities will suffer from the cancellation of flagship fundraising events; in 2019, Shelter earned £500,000 from the London Marathon alone. On March 21st, Crisis launched ‘In This Together’ to support the continued provision of services amid the crisis. Yet the number of volunteers will falter as people over 65 are the group most likely to volunteer regularly, but have been told to self-isolate. 


Glasgow City Mission hopes that the pandemic will provide a “turning point”, for how accommodation is provided to vulnerable people. According to recent a YouGov poll, three in four Brits feel ‘powerless’ to help homeless people, and 61% believe the government should do more to help. Yet people in temporary accommodation and shelters are left ‘out of mind’ by officials, despite the desperate need to address the rising cost of housing. Nationwide, as the economy falters, the numbers will only worsen. Even with the recent pledge to support 80% of workers’ wages, unemployment rates will likely exceed 6%, leaving at least 700,000 people jobless and indebted even if they are protected from eviction in the near future. The plans constructed during this pandemic must also consider a long-term strategy that eradicates homelessness for good.

Holly Barsham