While most of the population of the UK are confined to their homes, what about those of us who don’t have one? How is the Coronavirus lockdown affecting homeless people?
At the time of writing, the UK is about to enter its fourth week of lockdown due to the Coronavirus. We are not allowed to leave our homes except for exercise or essential shopping. Most shops and other businesses are closed, so many people are working from home. We don’t know how long it will take before we can return to normal.
However, while most of us stay at home to try to stop the spread of the disease, watching Netflix or trying to educate our children, there are a group of people who cannot do this: the growing homeless population of the UK. The UK Government has taken steps to take care of homeless people during this period, but it is difficult to remove the risk of Coronavirus from their lives.
Challenges for homeless people
On top of the usual day-to-day challenges of living as a homeless person in the UK, Coronavirus has brought a raft of new problems.
Firstly there is the risk of contracting the virus. The nature of the illness and its symptom-free incubation period mean that homeless people would be a high-risk group. Because of the way homeless people live, in close contact with each other and with large crowds of people, if the virus gets into their community, it could spread quickly. Rough-sleepers have limited access to washing facilities.
For homeless people living in shelters or temporary accommodation, the risk is just as high because of the transient nature of their lives. Government advice is to self-isolate if you show symptoms of the disease, but that is just not possible if you are homeless. If they feel ill, homeless people have reduced access to healthcare. Most services have not closed, because they don’t want to force people back on to the streets, so the people that work in them are more at risk too.
The lockdown will make life much more difficult too. The outreach facilities that homeless people rely on are closed, with workers confined to their homes. Homeless people can register with a GP, but many don’t know how. Rough sleepers who rely on donations from the public will not be able to receive any money, as everybody is locked down at home.
To sum up, homeless people, whether they are free of the virus or suffering from it, have to live outside, in public, while the rest of the population stay at home.
What is being done?
The Government is trying to solve this problem with the resources at its disposal. When the lockdown started in March, it was announced that all rough sleepers in England would be given a roof over their head. An appeal was launched to find any unused buildings that could be utilised to house homeless people safely. Homeless people were rushed into shelters, hotels and even Heathrow Airport.
However, this may not be a long-term solution, mainly because we don’t know when or how the lockdown will end. There are also concerns about how this rush to house homeless people will be paid for. The Government has given local councils an extra £1.6 billion to help respond to these new demands, but more will be needed.
Experts on homelessness have called for further action, such as changes to housing benefit to make accommodation more easily accessible for homeless people, or the removal of the ‘right to rent’ checks that private landlords need to perform.
The other question is, when this is all over, will homeless people just be forced back on to the streets? Will they need to start again from zero?
Of course, these problems are not unique to the UK. Coronavirus has affected lives across the world. Different countries are dealing with the virus and their homeless populations in different ways.
- In Italy, there have been reports of the police handing out fines to homeless people on the streets, which of course they cannot pay
- In France and Belgium, homeless people, even those in temporary accommodation, have said they cannot find enough food to live on
- In the Czech Republic, social workers are worried about going out to help homeless people, because they have no access to protective equipment
In Amsterdam, homeless shelters were instructed to close during the day, forcing everyone back out on to the streets. While as a contrast, overcrowded shelters in Paris gymnasiums locked their doors.
We haven’t heard of anything similar to this happening in the UK, but it could just not be reported.
The efforts by the UK authorities to mitigate the impact of the Coronavirus on homeless people are welcome, even if they are only temporary.
When the crisis is over, however, we must take steps to ensure that in the event of another emergency, homelessness isn’t as much of an issue. One such measure should be making more affordable homes available. Building affordable, permanent homes is a key element in the fight for an end to homelessness.
Once in a permanent home, formerly homeless people can start to build a new life. They can access medical services and enrol children into schools. They can wash. They can eat healthily. If there was ever another virus, they could self-isolate and lock down without worry.
Let’s hope that once this is all over, we can shift the emphasis toward providing affordable homes to all who want one.