A temporary silver lining: homelessness and COVID-19

A temporary silver lining: homelessness and COVID-19

The government’s creation of 6000 supported homes, alongside council initiatives to provide shelter for 90% of the homeless population appeared to be one positive triumph in the midst of the COVID-19 doom and gloom. Now, as we are slowing edging out of lockdown, I wonder how long will this newfound consideration for the homeless last? 

Job loss, substance abuse, family issues, mental health issues, are just a few of the numerous reasons why someone may end up living on the streets. In the UK alone, it is thought that there are over 320,000 people living on our streets, struggling to navigate their way back to regular life.  It is no wonder this number is so high, considering the mountain of challenges that need facing in life before being able to return to a full-time residence. 

In order to find a job, you often need a permanent address…and in order to find a house, you need a job! Not only this, but bank accounts, identity cards, national insurance numbers and more are required by law for a person to acquire a job; items that many homeless people may not have access to. 

Government action

The UK has been struggling to control the levels of homelessness as the percentage of rough sleepers increases each year. In England, it was found that the number of rough sleepers had drastically increased from 1,768 in 2010 to 4,677 in 2018. 

Since March 2020, housing minister, Luke Hall, suggested that the government would aid councils in providing “accommodation for people on the streets”, as well as procuring food, medical care, and separating those who could have symptoms into different housing areas.

The government pledged an initial £3.2 million towards helping councils fulfil this promise, with a further £3.2 billion being given to councils to aid in financial pressures created by the pandemic, which includes rehousing the homeless. A lot of this rehousing has involved relocating those who live on the streets to hotels, apartments and other vacant lots. 

However, this has only been a temporary solution. Last week homeless charity Crisis revealed that the government will soon be ending their contract with the local councils to fund the homeless and that there has been “no indications at all” that housing for the homeless will continue.

When there is a public health emergency, the government can swiftly rehouse the homeless, but why has this not been achievable in the past?

Tackling the homelessness crisis abroad

It may seem like a daunting task for the government to provide housing for the 280,000 homeless people within the UK, but that does not mean that it is impossible. If we look towards other countries, we can see the steps in which we can take to diminish the number of rough sleepers within the UK.

In Finland, the percentage of rough sleepers has been steadily decreasing over the past decade, with only 6,600 people being classified as being without a home. So how does Finland achieve this? 

  • The importance of housing – Finland’s policy has meant that housing is the first priority in getting people off the streets. The theory behind this is that having a permanent address can make it easier to deal with other issues that may be affecting the homeless, such as health and social issues.
  • Supporting their independence – Those who are homeless are given a constant level of support from a housing advisor, which includes advice relating to finances, applications for jobs and government schemes. In giving homeless people the support they need to become financially stable; they provide them with skills that will increase their employability.
  • Guardianship, rather than shelters – In the UK, homeless shelters, emergency hostels and refugees can house you around six months, dependent on location and capacity. After this time, you are expected to move on. Finland, on the other hand, chose to abolish homeless shelters in aid of long-term living facilities for their homeless population. 

The World Economic Forum explains the system as such:

“The homeless are given permanent housing on a normal lease. That can range from a self-contained apartment to a housing block with round-the-clock support. Tenants pay rent and are entitled to receive housing benefits. Depending on their income, they may contribute to the cost of the support services they receive. The rest is covered by local government.”

Perhaps it is time the UK took a leaf out of Finland’s book. 

A new wave of homelessness

As well as the immediate horror, death and sadness that COVID-19 has caused, we may now run into a new wave of homelessness. With the rise of unemployment, is it believe that a considerable proportion of people will be out of work due to COVID-19. James Reed, the owner of the UK’s largest recruitment company Reed, predicted that unemployment rates might reach heights of 15%, meaning 5 million people would become unemployed.

With the increased risk of homelessness encroaching the huge numbers of newly jobless members of our population, the efforts that have been made to aid the homeless are simply not enough.

We have seen the positive effects from other countries and the resources that we have provided throughout lockdown have also been met with positivity, so why have we not tried to eliminate this issue for good?

The homelessness charity Crisis found that if the UK implemented a similar policy to that of Finland, it would be five times more effective than the systems we already have in place, as well as being nearly five times more cost-effective. This information was gathered three years ago, yet the government has yet to act upon it.

Disappointingly, the government believe this approach to be impossible to implement in our society, yet their reasoning is laughable:

“We are cautious about investing further in Housing First in England because of the severity of England’s homelessness challenge and the scarcity of funding and of social housing. Many people have been on social housing registers for over ten years and are therefore likely to be concerned by what might be seen as a means of jumping the queue.”

It seems the government are more concerned with seeming ‘fair’ rather than the fundamental right to have a roof over your head. In short, if everyone has a house, then it doesn’t seem to matter whether you ‘jumped the queue’.

Aiding the homeless

With some positive steps being taken towards deflating the homelessness crisis in the wake of COVID, we must maintain this momentum and implement new systems to prevent individuals returning to the streets, and also from the numbers increasing.

“We also need to see a package of support so that, when the outbreak subsides, the outcome is not that people return to the streets.” – John Sparkes, chief executive of ‘Crisis.’

More money needs to be funded into permanent housing facilities, rather than sending people to shelters without emotional and financial support. In doing so, we are not solving the issue at hand or giving those who need it the tools to get off the streets for good.

If the government puts guidelines in place to help the growing homeless population within the UK, then right now we may be able to shift the homelessness crisis before the emergence of new cases due to COVID-19.

The UK cannot continue to neglect this staggering portion of the population, especially with the threat of more rough sleepers due to the virus. Take inspiration from other countries and support the homeless.

For more information, click this link to head to Crisis.org.uk