Coronavirus has already changed the way we work, the way we shop and the way we live – and those adaptations are making their way into every corner of our communities.
While a proportion of the working population are complaining about the struggles of self-isolation and working from home, some of society’s most vulnerable people have been left wondering how they’ll cope at all with nowhere to retreat to.
The government has announced £3.2 million of emergency funding to help rough sleepers self-isolate, but with more than 300,000 people in the UK are thought to be homeless, for many of these people hand-washing and social distancing is far more complicated than heading to the bathroom sink or cancelling dinner plans.
One rough sleeper, in his 40s and living in London, told HuffPost UK: “If I get sick, I don’t know what to do.
“I live on the street and I need somewhere every day to get some free food. I can’t self-isolate – I need all the time to be in public places. There is no information from the government about what to do.”
One of his major concerns, he explained, was that he could possibly expose other people to the virus as a result of being forced to spend his time in public places.
“I spend a lot of time in the library if it’s open, out on the streets, and in public places because there is nowhere else to be inside if I don’t have a place to live.
“I don’t have any other options – I cannot self-isolate, I cannot stay inside.”
Adrian, another member of the homeless population and in his 50s, said he believed he’d be OK if he caught the virus, but was worried for the elderly.
“It’s the people with poor immunity and underlying conditions, they’ll be more susceptible unfortunately and they’re the ones we need to be more careful of,” he said.
“Usually it’s the older people who will be affected, but a lot of the over-70s are actually carers for people over the age of 90 so if they become isolated, who’s going to look after the more elderly people?
“There are a number of people I come here [to the soup kitchen] with who are over 70 and are quite frail – those are the people we’ve got to look out for. It’s probably better for a couple of months if they don’t go to places with big crowds where they could catch and infection.”
HuffPost UK reported last week that homeless charities were in desperate need of guidance on how they should react to the unfolding crisis. Until Monday, the government had issued no specific advice for homeless people about how to manage the risks around coronavirus, or what to do if they fell ill.
The advice that was eventually released – informing day centres and rough sleepers’ hostels that visitors should self-isolate if they become unwell – was quickly criticised by leading homelessness charity Crisis as “inadequate”.
Its chief executive Jon Sparkes said: “It fails to set out a plan for how people experiencing homelessness can self-isolate in this outbreak.
“We need emergency action to protect people in this very vulnerable situation – this must include testing and access to housing. Let’s not forget that the average age of death of someone who is homeless is 45, substantially lower than the general population. Given the obvious vulnerability, the only answer can be to provide housing that allows people to self-isolate.”
The guidance from Whitehall states that shelters can remain open unless ordered to shut by Public Health England or the government, but should “frequently clean and disinfect regularly touched objects and surfaces”.
If a resident falls ill they should remain inside their room and “minimise visiting shared spaces such as kitchens, bathrooms and sitting areas as much as possible”. If they display symptoms at a day centre, the government advice states, they should either be moved to a separate room or to another area at least two metres from other people.
Crisis are calling on more aggressive emergency measures to be brought in to help the homeless, including improved access to healthcare and assistance from the government to secure hotel style accommodation for rough sleepers.
Similar measures have started to be introduced in other virus-hit cities around the world. State government in California, which is home to around 100,000 homeless people, has already been working to secure hotel rooms and mobile vehicle accommodation for rough sleepers, it was reported on Sunday.
Many of the UK’s shelters and day centres are at breaking point; scared to stay open because of the risk of an infection spreading, and scared to close for fears of what could happen if there was no help out there for the homeless.
Andrew Mcleay, manager at Ealing Soup Kitchen, said the number of volunteers that helped feed some 400 homeless visitors each week had fallen rapidly as a result of self-isolation, leaving him unsure about the future of the service, which is a lifeline to many.
“We’re seeing quite a number of volunteers across all sites that are not attending soup kitchen because they’re worried about either giving it to the guests,” Mcleay explained.
“It means that we are not as effective as we used to be, so we can’t put into place a lot of the things we would like to, such as extra checks to make sure that everybody is safe.
“The issue is, if we close, who else is going to look after them? Who else was going to give them a shower, who else was going to get them haircuts? Who else is going to get them the food, and the clothes, and everything else they need?”
The team of more than 200 volunteers at Ealing Soup Kitchen tends to serve the homeless at the premises themselves but, as Mcleay explained, there could be a switch to an outreach approach with volunteers out on the streets.
It might seem like a neat solution, but actually finding rough sleepers in an area like Ealing is “virtually impossible”, Mcleay said.
“It’s much harder to find people on the street in Ealing than it is in central London, because in the centre there are high levels of traffic, which in some way provides a level of safety because there’s always people around.
“A homeless person might get assaulted, but it’ll be more visible. Whereas in Ealing people wouldn’t necessarily risk the quieter streets so they go into parks which get locked up at night, so actually finding them is virtually impossible and it just presents another huge challenge.”
Mcleay has already experienced several instances where he’s had to take a guest at the soup kitchen aside because they were displaying symptoms of the virus – but there was no way of knowing if it was Covid-19 because of a lack of testing.
In those cases, he explained, he’s stuck between being unable to refer someone to an overnight shelter because they could pose a risk to other residents and leaving them out on the streets where their condition could worsen. In those cases, the only thing he has been able to do is try to call 111, and direct them to A&E as a very last resort.
“I feel completely unprepared – I think most people do,” he said. “Even the government to an extent really, because a lot of it is guesswork. We don’t actually know what we’re dealing with here.
“We kind of know some of the symptoms, but even then we don’t seem to have any kind of permanent solutions besides isolation.
“My main priority right now is trying to make sure that we do the right thing for the homeless, and to try and get as much done as we can so that we don’t leave them in too much of a rut.
“My concern is if we shut down now, we don’t know if it’s going to last for weeks or months and I don’t know how long I can afford to shut the soup kitchen, because a lot of these guys really do need it. It’s not a question of want – they actually need it.
“One death on the streets is a tragedy. Closing down the kitchen might seem like a sensible option, but it’s certainly not a practical one.”
Another man, in his 70s and a regular visitor to the soup kitchen, said the situation could be improved if there were drop-in centres where homeless people could get more advice about coronavirus. “The only advice we’ve had is just about washing hands and isolating,” he said.
“A lot of homeless are really isolated and people won’t be able to find anybody – they won’t know where to go or what to do, and they’ve got no doctors.”
Linda, now in her 60s, said she was concerned about the impact of the virus because she has problems breathing.
“It’s bad now, but I’ve been told that in the next few months it’s going to get worse,” she said.
“Boris Johnson has to get his act together – you don’t go around saying people are going to die. You need to be with the people and helping them.”