It is shocking to realise that in the current day and age we are witnessing an increasing number of individuals in the process of becoming homeless or sleeping rough in the UK, the 6th biggest economy in the world in terms of GDP.
Despite this, it is clear that there are an unacceptably large number of vulnerable people struggling without basic amenities such as food and shelter. In December 2019, Shelter estimated that 280,000 people were homeless in England, which is extremely alarming. Given the current circumstances and restrictions arising from lockdown, this number is only likely to increase. There are a number of reasons why individuals find themselves homeless. These causes are often related to wider social issues including a lack of affordable housing, poverty, unemployment and individual circumstances, i.e. those leaving prison, long term care, the army or violent and abusive relationships.
The impact of lockdown
In March 2020, the UK was placed in its first lockdown as a result of COVID 19. People were advised to stay indoors and to only leave their homes if it was absolutely necessary. Not only were people stuck at home but many individuals found themselves significantly adversely impacted due to their incomes being reduced or even lost completely. Due to the pandemic, many businesses could not maintain their existing workforce so jobs were at risk. The impact of imminent homelessness and/or rough sleeping serves only to increase both the practical and psychological effects of lockdown.
Although the Government introduced some measures to ease the crisis such as the furlough scheme, mortgage holidays and a stay on possession proceedings, these measures fell short of the level of support many individuals needed, in particular the self-employed and those working in some areas such as the hospitality sector that were more affected than others.
It has become apparent following research conducted by the Guardian amongst both UK born and migrant rough sleepers in the UK that many of these individuals had been made homeless in recent months following the loss of their employment in the service sector. Those hit hardest were employed in restaurants, clubs and event security.
Young people have been the worst hit, as many young workers are employed in the hospitality sector, which is known for notoriously low wages and a lack of workplace protection. It has been estimated that 60% of the half a million of those who lost their jobs between March and summer 2020 were aged 16-25. As a result of the lack of financial stability, many individuals have found themselves at risk of losing their homes. Given the nature of lockdown and the financial impact it has had on individuals, the homelessness numbers are only likely to increase.
During the summer months of 2020, the struggling economy began to claw back some of its losses. However, on 31 October 2020, the Prime Minister announced a second national lockdown. This news was alarming for individuals and businesses already struggling but its impact has been worse for those who are homeless or facing impending homelessness, struggling to keep up with their mortgage or rent payments.
The greater concern is the fact that those who are homeless during the second lockdown are not being afforded the same level of support as was provided during the first lockdown. There have been many calls by various charities and organisations alike to provide the additional support required.
This is primarily because the Government has failed to extend its ‘everyone in’ scheme introduced during the first national lockdown. This point has been explored in further detail by Retha Khan, in her article titled: Is a U-turn required on the Government’s stance on the ‘Everyone In’ policy during lockdown 2.0?
The discomfort of street homelessness is undeniably aggravated during the cold winter months, not to mention the psychological impact and loneliness at Christmas when families usually come together. The cold weather can also aggravate the health issues of people who are already very vulnerable.
As rough sleepers are being left without shelter due to the lack of action from ministers, charities have warned that the UK is facing a ‘humanitarian disaster’. Stark warnings have been issued that many lives will be at risk without any action taken by the government. Usually night shelters would have been available to rough sleepers during the winter months. However, due to the current pandemic such shelters will be unable to operate safely. As a result rough sleepers are facing both the threat of coronavirus and the cold weather.
Is there a ban on evictions?
On 16 November 2020, The Public Health (Coronavirus) Protection from Eviction and Taking Control of Goods) (England) Regulations 2020 came into force. These Regulations have effectively put a stop to evictions except for those in exceptional circumstances, such as anti-social behaviour, trespassers, death of an assured tenant, domestic violence and ‘substantial arrears’.
Substantial arrears are defined as at least 9 months’ rent arrears at the date on which the possession order was made. However, rent arrears accumulated after 23 March 2020 must be excluded, i.e. arrears accrued during the pandemic. However, it is unlikely that bailiffs executed evictions will be scrutinising the rent arrears to determine what arrears accrued when. The upshot of these Regulations is that the court would have to be satisfied that the substantial arrears were not accumulated during the pandemic and that the eviction is lawful.
This partial ban on evictions will come to an end on 11 January 2021. In order to evict a tenant in cases where a possession order has been made, an application to the court must be made citing the exceptions on which the landlord seeks to rely. Where a possession order is yet to be made, the court will make a decision based on the circumstances of the case.
However, these provisions provide only a brief respite, not a permanent solution.
The aftermath of the pandemic
In a news conference on 9 November 2020, the Prime Minister made it clear that there were more hurdles that we need to pass before we are likely to see the introduction of a vaccine. Therefore, it is unlikely that a vaccine will be in circulation prior to early 2021.
This pandemic has caused the country many uncertainties throughout the year. The Government has injected a significant amount of financial resources into the economy from introducing furlough payments to large payments to businesses. It is likely that post pandemic the Government’s first priority will be to recoup these funds. It is understandable that the Government will place its focus on rebuilding the economy which is likely to result in the UK’s homelessness problem being side lined yet again. However, the human cost of this approach could be immense, following on from the losses already suffered due to the pandemic.
As we have seen with the second lockdown, the Government has failed to provide any effective support to the homeless sector at such a crucial time in the lead up to Christmas and it seems inevitable that this will trend will continue over the next 6 to 12 months.
With an increasing number of individuals facing homelessness and/or sleeping rough over the approaching months, the sector is in dire need of further financial support but it remains unclear when or indeed if this will introduced. In the meantime, an increasing number of homeless people face the prospect of a bleak Christmas in 2020 and New Year in 2021. At this time, the involvement of support services, including legal specialists, is more crucial than ever.