Coronavirus Nearly Ended Street Homelessness in U.K. Maybe Not for Long.
Coronavirus Nearly Ended Street Homelessness in U.K. Maybe Not for Long.
LONDON — Driving through the East London borough of Newham recently, Ryan Anderson and Billy Tattingham pointed out some of the places they had slept before the coronavirus outbreak.
An underpass at a train station; an alleyway; the crime-ridden walkways of a local shopping center; on particularly cold nights, a subway elevator.
But all that changed for the childhood best friends in late March.
As part of Britain’s effort to contain the spread of the virus, the government required local councils in England and Wales to provide emergency accommodation in budget hotels to every homeless person living on the streets.
For Mr. Anderson and Mr. Tattingham, it has been a revelation.
“It’s so surreal to wake up in a bed every morning, my own room with my own door and bathroom,” Mr. Anderson said. “To tell you the truth, corona has been the best thing that has happened to the homeless. No one has benefited as much as us.”
Since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown, more than 90 percent of people sleeping on the street have been offered a place to stay, according to government statistics. At the same time, a new, undocumented wave of homelessness is hitting the streets as people made jobless by the pandemic are being evicted from rooms they were renting.
Nevertheless, homeless charities say the initial success of the government’s homeless program has proved what they have long maintained: that an injection of funding and support from the government can quickly and effectively bring people off the streets.
“It was an amazing effort, and it shows what you can do when you have the political will and a willingness to spend the money,” said Dominic Williamson, the executive director of strategy and policy for the British homeless charity St. Mungo’s.
Health officials and homeless advocates say the number of cases among the homeless sleeping on the street has been very low because the councils moved quickly to get them off the streets. And in the hotels, people were given their own rooms, communal areas were closed and outside visitors were strictly prohibited.
But now, homeless advocates are concerned over what will happen when the emergency legislation runs out.
“Moving people into hotels does not resolve the homelessness,” Mr. Williamson said. “They are still homeless. A hotel is not a home.”
Even before the pandemic, Britain was grappling with a spiraling housing crisis, the product of soaring home and rental prices, housing shortages and benefit cuts. The number of “rough sleepers,” as Britain calls the street homeless, has increased by 141 percent since 2010.
Each year, thousands of people are excluded from social housing registration for any of several reasons, including a history of rent arrears, insufficient time spent in a local area or antisocial behavior.
In recent weeks, as businesses shuttered in accordance with the coronavirus lockdown and millions of people lost their jobs, a new wave of homelessness has spread across the country. Hit particularly hard are people in the hospitality industry who had sublet from private landlords without tenancy agreements and were therefore unable to benefit from the government’s temporary ban against evictions.
In London’s Trafalgar Square, the usual crowds of tourists have been replaced by hundreds of homeless people who line up each night for hot food and drink, distributed daily by volunteers.
Nadia Balan, a 26-year-old bartender and artist from Romania, became homeless for the first time in April after she lost her job at a pub and was evicted from her room in a shared house because she could no longer afford the rent.
“I work very hard. I never thought I would lose my job.” Ms. Balan said, sitting on a pile of her belongings under a restaurant doorway. “I am so scared, I can’t sleep. Every night the streets empty, only druggies and gangs stay here and they are like zombies. There is nowhere to sleep safely.”
Ms. Balan signed up for hotel accommodation, but it was not clear when she would be placed. Those sleeping on the streets must first be verified by an outreach team, which then passes the information to the local authorities.
“We’ve seen people who’ve been waiting several days or over a week just to have someone come out and see them,” said Alex Norris, a caseworker for a London homeless charity, Glass Door.
“In some boroughs that have much higher levels of rough sleeping than others, people are being added onto waiting lists, and then essentially being told they need to continue to sleep out until something becomes available.”
The government pledged an initial 3.2 million pounds, nearly $4 million, to help local councils accommodate the street homeless at the start of the pandemic. Since then, it has kicked in an additional £3.2 billion to assist the councils with the immediate pressures of the pandemic, including homelessness.
“We are also accelerating plans for new rough sleeping services — backed by £433 million — which will ensure 6,000 new housing units will be put into the system, with 3,300 of these becoming available in the next 12 months,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Housing said.
Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow secretary of state for housing, said that while she welcomed the government’s newfound interest in ending street homelessness for good, it needed to go further.
“The government must now also act to ensure that people who rent their home do not fall into arrears as a result of coronavirus by strengthening the social security system, and that those who have fallen into arrears are not evicted in July when the temporary evictions ban ends,” she said.
Outreach workers running operations in the hotels are scrambling to register people for more permanent housing amid concerns that government funding may soon run out and the hotels will reopen to their regular clients.
In Newham, which has the highest rate of homelessness in the country, many of those who have been placed in the hotels are registering for permanent housing for the first time.
“It is unheard-of that someone like Ryan would under any circumstances be offered a hotel room to wait out a housing application,” said Anneke Ziemen, lead outreach manager at the Thames Reach homeless charity. “There is still the usual gatekeeping from the side of the local council, but it has made a big difference to have everyone in a stable place where they can focus on getting the applications in.”
For Mr. Tattingham, the experience at the hotel has been transformational. A former boxer, who has been in and out of jail for years and has been trying to overcome a heroin addiction, he says this interlude is the first time that he has been able to take stock of his life.
“When I lie on my bed, I manage to leave everything behind and just reflect,” he said with a pensive look. “I realize that high-level crime didn’t get me anywhere, it just led me to more crime and more time in jail. I gained nothing from it.”
Now, Mr. Tattingham has applied for housing for the first time.
“The next step is to get my own place and distance myself from these like-minded people, who don’t really do me any good,” he said, referring to the other homeless people in the establishment. “This place becomes mental after 9 o’clock, everyone goes mad and will go all out until they get their next fix or whatever it is, they want. It’s not good for me.”
Fights often break out between the residents, and hotel workers are often forced to call the police. When Mr. Tattingham and Mr. Anderson came back from a trip to town on a recent day, a police officer was in the lobby, responding after one resident had tried to stab another with a broken crack pipe.
“Yes, there are lots of problems, but for once, everyone is being given an opportunity to be helped,” Mr. Anderson said.
“There will always be some who are too lazy to take it, or who don’t want it. But right now, it’s there on a plate and it feels like a lot of people around here are going to grab it and things might actually change for the better.”