Whilst the Government continues to announce ever stricter measures for the UK’s population to help stop the catastrophic spread of the virus sweeping the globe, the consistent message to all has been to stay in our homes.
This advice is impossible to follow for those who are homeless and sleeping rough, not to mention the estimated 70,400 people who are relying on friends and family to “sofa surf”. With households encouraged to stay indoors it can only be imagined the strain that these relationships are being put under.
There has been a long overdue pledge today of £3.2 million to be made available to local councils to assist homeless people to self-isolate to tackle Coronavirus. The announcement does not set out how the additional funds should be used but promises that a task force will be set up and kept under review.
What does the current law say?
Local authorities are currently only under a duty to secure accommodation for people who would be more at risk than the “ordinary” homeless person (i.e. priority need because of vulnerability) as well as those who are not deemed to be homeless intentionally. The problem with this is that at the moment, every ordinary person is at risk not just to themselves but of spreading the virus and becoming an unwitting threat to others.
Poor quality and overcrowded housing have long been connected with an increase in viral transmissions. Nightshelters are often set up in a manner where several people are sleeping in the same room and hostels will generally have shared facilities. Guidance has been released on how to manage isolation and cleanliness in this type of accommodation but as a solution to allow people to isolate themselves it seems insufficient to say the least.
Call for local authorities to secure accommodation for homeless people to minimise the spread of COVID-19
As an absolute minimum, the existing duties to secure accommodation should be extended to those who are not considered a “priority” and those people normally excluded from homeless assistance because they are deemed to have brought it on themselves. More suitable accommodation such as self-contained rooms or empty buildings should be requisitioned immediately to help people comply with the lockdown. Unsold new developments, newly emptied student halls or tourist-free hotels immediately come to mind as places currently run by private interests that could be requisitioned and accommodate people in the short term. Including people who are currently in overcrowded or unsanitary housing conditions. The number of empty homes compared to the homeless has always been a shameful reality, particularly in London, and in a time of crisis this imbalance can be shifted.
A resolution must be made to not only eliminate rough sleeping, with immediate effect, but also to ensure that the accommodation provided is conducive to stopping the spread of infection and allowing for the for the mental health of the isolated. Where a household does not have access to a kitchen, an allowance for food deliveries for those on a low income can be included in existing benefit claims. A person should be able to eat and wash without fear of contracting or spreading a deadly virus.
A promise of money can only go so far, and while local authorities will be relieved to have some support, more drastic action needs to be taken. It should be clear that accommodation must be provided to all, regardless of the narrowly defined legal duties they are “owed”. Not only are homeless people more at risk of infection due to underlying health problems and lack of treatment but by being unable to isolate themselves it seems clear that they will (through no fault) also be at risk of spreading the virus to those still on the street. Decent housing is a basic healthcare need at this time.
If we are to take the anti-virus precautions seriously this will mean that everyone will have to abide by them. A homeless person cannot possibly take the necessary measures alone and so immediate action will have to be taken to enable them to do so.
We need to do all we can to keep people safe; currently, you can still contact StreetLink on 03005000914 if you see somebody sleeping rough to find some assistance.