Even before the impact of COVID-19 and the subsequent response by the government, homelessness has remained a persistent issue that the government seems unable to fix. The Charity ‘Shelter’ released a report this April on the effect of the Homeless Reduction Act 2018 concluding that while some councils have rightly taken measures to prevent homelessness many are turned away without receiving sufficient support. Furthermore, the government is failing to effectively reduce the number of rough sleepers as intended.
Just over a month ago MP Luke Hall announced that housing would be provided for homeless people to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the UK in line with the government response to limit the spread of the virus. Some of the principles outlined in the document include, ensuring that those who cannot self-isolate due to sleeping rough are able to do so and provision of adequate hygiene facilities.
He claimed that this would be funded with the £1.6 billion funding boost for local authorities that was announced at the beginning of the lockdown restriction. While this move is clearly a positive step forward it is important to ask critical questions concerning government action, would this much effort to reduce homelessness have been made if there was no COVID-19 outbreak? Are these measures adequate to ensure that rough sleepers are not contracting and spreading the virus further?
Is it working?
While the government claims that 90% of homeless persons have been offered a place to stay, this figure is very difficult to verify. While this is clearly a positive action to take, there have been conflicting reports telling a different story. Disturbing instances of homeless people still suffering on the streets, enduring the inherent risks of rough sleeping as well as the danger of COVID-19 are seen throughout the media. The Evening Standard reported on cases of homeless individuals with symptoms still waiting on accommodation, a situation totally unacceptable given the danger the virus poses. There are additional instances of homeless people being charged nearly £200 per week to have a roof over their heads – even after Hall promised emergency housing.
There is clearly much more left to be done.
What will happen next?
The lacklustre, albeit rapid response that the government has been forced to take in response to the pandemic, raises some serious issues. COVID-19 has helped to show the country that we need a safety net. We need the NHS, we need public services, we need nurses, carers, firemen and cleaners. What is clear is that Conservative Governments of that last decade have consistently ignored these issues, with a steady increase in homelessness since 2010 and a 24% increase in deaths of homeless people noted by the Office for National Statistics in 2018.
The government should be thinking less about the importance of the ultra-rich and more about the health and welfare of those most unfortunate in our society. If a property is unused or empty and people sleep in the cold and the rain on the street, there is something deeply and profoundly wrong with the way our economic system works.
In 2020 homelessness is a political choice of the ruling elite. The worrying addiction to the economy that the conservatives seem to have, is driving us towards easing up on the lockdown, which is in place to prevent the death of vulnerable people. The government’s reaction exposes the worry of the Conservatives, the fear of losing profit. Profit at all cost, profit at the detriment of working people’s health, profit at the detriment of homeless people’s health.
I can only hope that this pandemic forces people to evaluate political priorities towards the care of the homeless and the most vulnerable in our society, and away from bolstering the wealth of the powerful few.
By Phil Smith