One in every 201 Brits is homeless. This is from a piece of research last year by homelessness charity Shelter, which estimated the figure of British homelessness at 320,000. In the last decade, street homelessness has risen 141%. Its visibility is impossible to ignore, particularly in cities such as London, Birmingham, and Manchester, where rates are highest. Yet there is an even larger ‘hidden homeless’ population, who live in insecure and temporary accommodations (such as squatting or sofa surfing). The COVID-19 outbreak has put an end to many of the informal arrangements that these hidden homeless rely on, causing a further spike in street homelessness.
In a move designed to combat COVID-19’s spread, the government began a scheme called ‘Everyone In,’ providing £3.2 million to local councils in England and Wales to be used directly for providing emergency accommodation for homeless people in budget hotels. The scheme is widely estimated to have housed around 5,400 people since it came into effect at the end of March. The scheme was met with praise, with the homeless charity Crisis hailing it as “extraordinary.” As well as a room, the scheme also provided some of its beneficiaries with help on matters difficult to navigate while homeless, such as benefit applications and medical prescriptions. Speaking to the BBC, one homeless woman described it as “like something out of a storybook” when a local housing charity provided her with an en-suite room and a change of clothes within an hour. Another homeless person aided by the scheme was quoted by the New York Times: “It’s so surreal to wake up in a bed every morning, my own room with my own door and bathroom. To tell you the truth, corona has been the best thing that has happened to the homeless. No one has benefitted as much as us.”
Despite all this praise and joy, the question of just how long this “storybook” policy would last lingered in the air. It was never thought that ‘Everybody In’ would last forever, nor was it forgotten that hotels will eventually open for business again. Answers came in May when Manchester Evening News published an exclusive leaked report from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) which quietly confirmed the end of ‘Everyone In,’ detailing how “MHCLG has drawn a line under ‘Everyone In’ activity and is now asking local authorities to focus on ‘step down’ and ‘move on’ for those who have been accommodated as a result.”
As most contracts between local authorities and hotels come to an end this week, the move to displace people from newfound support systems and lifelines in the middle of a pandemic has been described by Crisis as “completely unacceptable.” The charity’s director of policy Matt Downie expressed concern that this course of action will lead to “a massive increase in rough sleeping in this country just at the point when we thought it would be possible to avoid that.” This ‘cliff-edge’ of provision seems like a cruel fate for those who, just a few months earlier, could hardly believe their luck as they were handed a real opportunity to get back on their feet. It is also a waste of real progress. The scheme fostered creativity and compassion, and that must not be lost.
It is worth noting that the government is refusing to accept such a critique in that they have not formally announced the end of the scheme, pointing to a £3.2 billion pot of funding for local councils during the pandemic. Yet councils are cash strapped, with reduced income flows and increased demand on services, and with no direct instruction that this money be spent on homelessness, this is not an adequate response. It seems misleading at best for the government to declare that the sum of £3.2 billion is to assist Britain’s homeless, particularly when the homelessness sector is already facing a shortfall of £1 billion. Additionally, the temporary ban on tenant evictions is lifting this month. Combine this with the furlough scheme winding down and redundancies accelerating, and it becomes clear that cases of homelessness in Britain are likely to skyrocket.
Knowing that the scheme was not a viable long-term solution, homelessness charities have been busy making proposals for the next steps. In May, Homeless Link published a transition plan from ‘Everyone In’ titled ‘Everyone In For Good.’ In this, they outlined the three principles that must guide the government’s next phase: nobody returns to or is new to the street, everybody receives support to keep their accommodations, and no return to business as usual. Crucially, Homeless Link is suggesting not just an increase in funding, but a transformative collaborative approach. Specifically, Homeless Link has suggested “a truly integrated health, care and homelessness system, with increased public health and clinical input,” with accountability which “must be shared across local authorities, the NHS and other relevant agencies, and backed up by cross-departmental commitment at the national level.” COVID-19 has been a double-edged sword which both laid bare the inequalities in our society and highlighted the vast social achievements possible when working together. It seems essential to move forward together, like Homeless Link has suggested, with greater collaboration from the government with the agencies that deal directly with the homelessness. The responsibility has for too long lain squarely with local councils, whose budgets are tight and whose resources are stretched.
In April, a group of leading homelessness charities including Crisis and Homeless Link wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister outlining the vital next steps for ‘Everyone In.’ The most essential of their suggestions is for a dedicated funding stream for local authorities to secure accommodation and provide ongoing support to keep people housed. Crisis has also asked the government to consider an emergency homelessness bill, which would fund councils in England and then force them to provide emergency accommodation for a year to anyone who becomes homeless during the pandemic. Crisis has estimated this move’s cost at £282 million. This figure is completely viable for Britain, one of the wealthiest nations in the world. (For context, Britain has spent to date £106 billion on high-speed rail network project HS2, £4 billion on a refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament, and at least £4.4 billion so far this year on co-ordinating Brexit.)
The government must take the proposals of experts in homelessness seriously, work collaboratively, and invest sufficiently to end this crisis. Yes, homelessness is a complex and permeating issue. But we must see it most fundamentally as an outrageous and inexcusable embarrassment, not merely a quiet shame to which we avert our eyes. And we must properly fund programs designed to end the cycle. It is not a question of finances as much as a question of political will.
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