OPINION
18/08/2020 09:58 BST

Lockdown Shows We Can Defeat Homelessness – If We Care Enough

Given the success of getting rough sleepers off the streets during the pandemic, why is government funding going to stop? Lauren Crosby Medlicott writes.

Chris Helgren / reuters
Two homeless men lie against a building near Victoria rail station

Passing by a person curled up on the street, with a sleeping bag, blanket and carrier bags, trying to get rest as the world passes by, conjures up a varied number of emotions – shame, fear, guilt, sympathy.

Homelessness in the UK is a problem that hasn’t seen much improvement over the years.

In 2019, there were over 28,000 rough sleepers in the UK throughout the course of the year – men and women making their “homes” on a piece of pavement or patch of grass.

Their reasons for being there are varied. Perhaps a relationship breakdown that left them without any place to go for the night. Or an alcohol addiction that drove all their finances into bottles of drink.  Maybe it is losing a job. Or having no recourse to public funds. Possibly a mental health issue that has made living on the streets easier than in rented accommodation.

Lockdown has given Britain a chance to see how homelessness can be defeated. 

In March, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick announced £3.2 million in emergency funding to help rough sleepers to self-isolate.

To prevent the spread of Covid-19 amongst homeless communities, this “Everyone In” scheme aimed to get people off the streets and into accommodation such as hotels and empty apartment blocks.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director at Public Health England, said: “People sleeping rough are often in poor health and are particularly vulnerable. That’s why this funding is so important, ensuring that rough sleepers who get symptoms have somewhere safe and protective to stay, and helping to prevent the spread of the infection”.

The scheme worked to house 5,400 people through government funding to local authorities during lockdown.

Additionally, support services and healthcare workers were more easily able to engage with the homeless when they were in a safe and stable environment.

In a matter of days, 90% of rough sleepers were placed in temporary, isolated accommodation.

Given the success of the initiative, it leaves people confused at to why the funding is going to stop. And now that the temporary ban on evictions is coming to an end, the problem is only going to get worse. 

Given Britain’s struggle to beat homelessness in the past, it is perplexing why the government doesn’t continue with a scheme that has obviously worked during lockdown.

The UK has seen a substantial leap in the number of rough sleepers since 2010. On a given autumn night in 2010, there were 1,768 rough sleepers in England.

At the height of the homelessness problem, in 2017, there were 4,751 rough sleepers on a similar type evening. That is an enormous leap in a small amount of time.

Low pay, less social housing, welfare reform, and local authority budget cuts could all be contributing factors to the epidemic.

The issue of homelessness was thrust into the public conscience in 2018 when a young Gyula Remes was found outside the Houses of Parliament, dead after choking on his own vomit.

Soon after, the Office for National Statistics showed that 600 homeless people were found dead in the streets or temporary accommodation in 2017.

Britain was waking up to the fact that we had a massive homelessness epidemic that was ignoring some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Steps have been taken to address the problem with £100 million allotted in 2018 to tackle rough sleeping on the streets of England.

Housing Secretary James Brokenshire promised to make homelessness “a thing of the past” and end rough sleeping by 2027.

Much of that money is used to open new shelters and employ support staff.

Even though it is a generous amount of money, it doesn’t compare to the £26m grants that were given to local councils until 2010 for homelessness projects, at which point homeless began to increase.

And while funding is always needed for projects, homelessness also requires an analysis of root causes if we are to see any lasting change.

We need to spend even more money to support those that have been homeless by helping them improve fractured relationships with family networks and wider society, develop financial independence and employability, access meaningful psychological and trauma focused recovery services, reinstate a sense of their dignity, advocate in the private housing arena to improve tenancy stability, and shift legislation around no recourse to public funds.

Given Britain’s struggle to beat homelessness in the past, it is perplexing why the government doesn’t continue with a scheme that has obviously worked during lockdown.

They happened upon a solution in the ‘Everyone In’ campaign and yet are keen to drop it only months after its inception.

Naturally, the scheme would require further funding. But Dame Louise Casey, leader of the Covid-19 rough sleepers task force, told Radio 4’s PM programme “the money has not run out and isn’t running out”. Which begs the question as to whether or not the government and British public actually care enough about the vulnerabilities of the homeless to house them unless there is a global pandemic that may threaten their own health and well-being.

We have a window of opportunity, while many homeless are currently housed, to reform the homelessness epidemic. Let’s not ignore the potential for change by overlooking those that have historically been neglected. 

Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance journalist.