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For 11 weeks this spring, Martin, 62, was accommodated at the government’s expense in a Holiday Inn in east London, taken off the streets as part of the drive to house all rough sleepers to prevent the spread of Covid-19. After 20 years of sleeping rough in London, Newcastle, Bristol and Edinburgh, he appreciated the break. He particularly enjoyed having a television with a remote control, and caught up on Netflix, making his way through Peaky Blinders, series one to six.
In July, he returned to sleeping in shop doorways near Trafalgar Square in central London, believing that there was little prospect of being offered somewhere more permanent to live when there were thousands of others waiting for homes. “They haven’t got the places for everyone. I left of my own accord, and they were quite happy for me to leave,” he says. He is determined to make the best of it, preparing to sleep wrapped in blue plastic tarpaulin bought from Argos, beneath the glare of shopfront light filtered through the huge smiling faces of healthy models advertising hiking boots. A few paces away, diners eat their meals at the new pavement tables set up outside Honest Burgers, unflustered by the line of people readying themselves for bed on the opposite side of the street.
There was a brief period in April when people working in the homelessness sector felt jubilant at the apparent success of a drive to bring all rough sleepers off the streets and into hotels to prevent the spread of Covid-19. About 15,000 people across England were put into 50 Travelodges, Ibis and Holiday Inns, which had been emptied of business travellers and tourists by the pandemic. There was a feeling that if so much could be achieved so quickly, then perhaps this might be a route to a more permanent reversal of the rising numbers of people sleeping rough, and a step towards achieving the government’s manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024. In May, Petra Salva, who heads the rough sleepers team at the charity St Mungo’s, which was managing 27 of these hotels, was thrilled at the huge achievement. “People say it’s not possible to end rough sleeping, but we’ve always maintained that it is, with the right attitude and money.”
Six months on, that optimism has faded, not least because the number of people sleeping rough in the capital and elsewhere is rising. The latest figures show a 33% increase in the number sleeping on London’s streets between April and June this year, at exactly the time when charities thought they had brought most people into hotels to protect them from the pandemic; almost two-thirds of the 4,227 recorded on the capital’s streets were people sleeping rough for the first time – most likely either because they had lost work and housing as a result of the pandemic, or because sharing rooms had become incompatible with social distancing rules.
Brian Whiting, a volunteer with the Under One Sky organisation, which has been helping with food distribution to rough sleepers during the pandemic, is concerned by the return to the area around Trafalgar Square of some of those who were placed in hotels. “It’s like giving people a treat and then taking it away again,” he says.
St Mungo’s staff say no one was pushed out of closing hotels on to the streets; they believe most of the people now sleeping rough in London are new arrivals. The charity is at pains to highlight the successes that it has had with finding permanent homes for many of those who went through hotels. It helped move 3,000 people into empty hotels under the Everyone In initiative, and has supported about 1,000 of them into longer-term housing. It is still running about 16 hotels across England and Wales, where work continues to try to find permanent solutions for those people who remain. But Salva admits she and her colleagues are feeling dismayed at the resurgence of the nightly reassembly of tents and cardboard-box shelters in the streets of central London.
“It was an amazing feeling getting everyone in. There was great collaboration between charities; it felt like we were doing something that really mattered, collectively, together. I’ve never seen my staff more motivated and more alive and more energised,” she says. “So they feel a bit defeated, having to go out on to the street now and seeing people – some of whom we’ve seen before, and many we haven’t ever seen before – back in the same spots. It’s very demoralising and very demotivating.”
Matthew Downie, the director of policy at the homelessness charity Crisis, tries to highlight the positive, pointing out that only 16 homeless people have died in England and Wales from Covid, and that Britain had only a fraction of the infection numbers among homeless people reported in the US. “I think this will come to be known as a scheme that saved rough sleepers from dying of a deadly virus; it won’t be remembered as a scheme that sustainably reduced or ended rough sleeping.”
But the memory of the fleeting success, and the rapid return to pre-Covid levels of rough sleeping, will be uncomfortable for ministers responsible for implementing the government’s target to end it. As soon as the dedicated funding for the hotel scheme stopped, the numbers on the streets began to rise again. Although government press releases cite head-spinningly large sums of new funding – an emergency £3.2bn grant for councils in England to deal with all Covid-related issues, and a dedicated £105m to keep rough sleepers off the streets – this has not been enough to reverse entrenched problems caused by housing shortages and a decade of underfunded local authority services. The drive to get people off the streets permanently has only partially worked.
“People will ask how, from a competence perspective, could you let such an amazing opportunity go?” Downie says. “What was brilliant about this scheme was the local authorities being told: forget all of the normal rules, just get everyone in, as a public health emergency. We couldn’t understand why that message wasn’t being sustained.”
In order to get people off the streets, councils were for a while ready to ignore all the usual restrictions they have on whom they are allowed to assist with housing, but that freedom has mostly ended.
The rules around eligibility for benefits and housing support for people from the European Union are complicated. A large proportion of those helped during the Everyone In scheme would not normally have been eligible for help. At the height of the pandemic, councils were told they didn’t need to adhere to these rules, but most authorities, worried about the costs, have returned to stricter adherence.
“It’s really just worth pointing out again and again that the vast majority of people that are sleeping rough are exactly the people that don’t qualify for help when they’re sleeping rough,” Downie says. “If you go to the council, and you say: ‘I’m sleeping on the streets,’ they will say: ‘Can you prove that you’re from this borough?’ If you can’t, then you get nothing. But if you can, they ask: ‘Well, how did you get here? Did you not pay your rent?’ That’s the leading cause of homelessness, but if you didn’t pay your rent, they’ll say: ‘Well, you did that intentionally, so you get nothing.’ Then they’ll say: ‘Do you have dependent children?’ And if you don’t, they’ll say: ‘Well, you don’t count as a priority case, so back out you go.’ And then, if you pass all of those tests but happen to be somebody from the European Union with no recourse to public funds, back out you go. All of those things (and many people have all of them, not just one) are just a guarantee that you get nothing.”
Louise Casey, who was brought in by the government at the beginning of the pandemic to oversee the Everyone In initiative, left her role in August, and was given a peerage. The precise reasons for her departure remain unclear, but she is understood to have felt frustrated at how little power she had within Whitehall to tackle the root causes of rising rough-sleeping numbers: the cuts to benefit payments; the impact of a decade of austerity on local authority budgets; the immigration policies that leave many non-UK nationals ineligible for support when they lose their jobs.
Meanwhile, people working on tackling homelessness are worried by the prospect of a new surge in numbers, as the government’s furlough scheme comes to an end and the stay on evictions finishes, just as the economic impact of further lockdowns and restrictions on social activity pushes more people into unemployment. This trend comes at the end of a decade where rough sleeping and homelessness figures were already at a record high, with 129,380 homeless children across England sleeping in temporary accommodation, up about 80% in the past decade. No one seems to know what will happen if another comprehensive lockdown is announced.
The early-evening scene in Trafalgar Square illustrates the growing problem. There are very few tourists, but the area in front of the National Gallery is crowded with people waiting for food. Some are already homeless; others feel on the cusp of losing their homes. Denis Kasper, 28, who studied English at university in Vilnius, Lithuania, and who qualified as a translator, is waiting with about 80 people to collect food from a distribution van. He had a brief period of homelessness earlier in the year, after losing his job as a breakfast waiter in an east London hotel, and is currently staying in a shared room with a friend who works as a Deliveroo driver. But he is worried about how much longer he can continue to pay the rent there without finding a new job. He has been working in hotels, warehouses and restaurants around the UK since moving here five years ago, but has found it impossible to find employment in the past six months. He walks for an hour most days to get an evening meal at the food distribution points in central London, because he doesn’t have enough left over for food after paying rent. “I’ve applied for about 30 jobs since lockdown,” he says. “I’m beginning to think I won’t find one. Of course, I feel worried.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘It’s like giving people a treat, then taking it away’ – the battle to stop another rise in rough sleeping | Society