Homeless people are facing their own serious challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. When the first case of the virus was reported in the UK on 29th January 2020, an estimated 280,000 people were living on the streets, with a further 220,000 threatened with homelessness.
The impact is more serious for people of deprived backgrounds, according to a report by the Campaign for Social Science. Living under extremely poor conditions, with underlying health problems that leave them vulnerable to severe illnesses, the pandemic poses a real threat to their wellbeing.
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Those experiencing homelessness are at a higher risk of suffering a severe case of Covid-19. This can affect not only people who are street-sleepers but also families and children living in insecure or low-quality accommodation.
Joint action for homeless
The CSS suggested an approach supported by the government and the whole of society was the only way to minimise the impact and save lives. Before the pandemic, this feat was believed to be “impossible”. However, the emergency action taken by the government helped homeless people – even those with a long history of rough sleeping.
The government, local authorities, homeless charities and the private sector pulled together to help homeless people during the crisis. Around 15,000 rough sleepers were immediately placed in emergency accommodation, including hotels and B&Bs, to help those most at risk when lockdown began in March.
A raft of other emergency measures was put in place, including ending the freeze on local authority housing benefit rates and a ban on evictions as an added safety net for people struggling financially. Reports suggested that by May, 90% of homeless people in the UK had been found accommodation of some sort.
In the longer term, taking into account the temporary nature of some of the housing, the measures have led to a 30% decrease in homelessness in the UK this year – something campaigners never believed could be achieved.
Future crisis looming
Despite this, there are still further struggles ahead, as the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened. Media reports on 8th October warned that UK hospitals were just ten days away from being at a “critical” stage, as they struggled to cope with rising cases.
The problem for homeless people is that social housing is now becoming overwhelmed. Job losses are leading to people struggling to pay rent and mortgages. The number of people in Britain claiming benefits between March and August increased 120% to 2.7 million.
The pandemic has been blamed for at least 750 thousand job losses to date. Young people aged 16 to 24 have been hit hard, with an extra 76,000 on benefits compared with the same period last year. This is because they are more likely to work in sectors such as restaurants, hotels and tourism, which have been affected significantly by the lockdown.
Being made redundant and suddenly relying on benefits impacts on people both financially and mentally, with depression creeping in as people who have nothing fear for their future. Sadly, homelessness has begun to rise again.
Despite the government and local authorities spending more than £3 million trying to tackle homelessness during the pandemic, people are gradually ending up back on the streets. Around 25% of homeless people given emergency housing under the scheme between March and May were back to square one after the initial lockdown was relaxed.
Around 1.7 million renters in the UK have lost their jobs this year and 23% say this has left them unable to pay their rent, so they are relying on welfare benefits for the first time, according to research by homeless charity Shelter.
Fears have been raised that people will struggle to manage their finances, as Universal Credit claimants have to pay their rent direct to the landlord from their benefit, often leaving themselves short. Shelter says the UC rate is too low and people are having to use some of the rent portion to buy essentials, such as food.
If there is a significant increase in homelessness due to Covid-19, more social housing will need to be created to cope with the demand, says Shelter.
The advantage of social housing is that it tends to be more affordable than ordinary private renting and often provides a more long-term, secure tenancy. It gives people the chance to put down roots, having more control over their home.
Social homes have the potential to provide high-quality housing for people on low incomes, giving them a secure environment. Charities such as Shelter are demanding that the government invests in a new generation of social housing to help the poorer sectors of society during and after the current crisis.
Furniture is provided within the property so that those who genuinely have nothing can move into a furnished home without having to spend a lot of money upfront. Basics include bedroom furniture including beds and mattresses, and living room furniture such as sofas and chairs.
Shelter has warned of a looming crisis if social housing isn’t there for everyone who needs it. With more than one million people already on the waiting list, and no end to the pandemic in sight, the charity is urging the government to make sure sufficient housing is available for individuals and families, struggling private renters and any other people who can’t find a suitable home.