Deep in the government’s strategy for lifting lockdown – page 39, to be exact – is its sole mention of the homeless.
It states: “Outbreaks amongst the socially excluded – whether through poverty or homelessness – are likely to be especially difficult to detect and harmful, since people in these groups may lack the means to isolate themselves when ill.”
And, er, that’s it.
No suggestions of what to do about it. No plan for avoiding what sounds like thousands of deaths among the most vulnerable people it is the government’s job to look after.
Just an acknowledgement they will fall ill, infect others, and die in ways that are unknown and untraceable.
As anyone who doesn’t use chauffeur-driven cars knows, the homeless are in fact easy to find. They are in every bus and train station. They ride the Tubes, trams and metros. They do not cycle. They do not walk to work. They do not isolate, or recover, in their holiday home.
And today, in a prime example of local news reporting challenging the national agenda, the Manchester Evening News reveals that Boris Johnson has “quietly pulled the plug” on its policy to house the homeless in order to protect them, and others, from Covid-19.
The government is less than thrilled with the news, and insists its cancellation of funding is not the same as withdrawing it. If anyone can tell the class which dictionary they’re using, please let us know.
The thrust of its argument seems to be that housing the homeless in hotels was the first step, and they are now moving on to the second step of more permanent accommodation. Whether they expect the homeless to pay their own rent at this stage, or whether the local authority is expected to do it for them, is unclear. But as “90% of those known to local councils at the start of the crisis” have been “offered” something more permanent, the government says, it’s job done.
Only problem is, Manchester knew about 600 people on the streets in March, and another 500 in shelters. A further 400 have been made homeless during the pandemic, and a total of 1,573 have been given hotel rooms.
A mere 120 refused to go, or were too anti-social so were kicked back out again. Which all means that the carefully-worded government response implies only 540 of those 600 initially on the streets have been offered somewhere, and that might not even have been accepted.
That leaves at least 1,033 in Manchester alone with no funding for their hotel rooms, and no offer of other accommodation. And the Labour-run city council, and Labour mayor Andy Burnham, are left with a headache.
Either they find the money from somewhere else, or let them back out on the streets to run the gauntlet of coronavirus, drugs, crime and abuse they were just starting to escape.
Because this scheme worked brilliantly. The MEN reports that only 7 people developed symptoms of the disease, while there were “vast improvements in person hygiene, re-connection with friends and family, access to health support and treatment”. Many, it says, broke their drug habits.
It was cheap, too. The government provided only £3.5million nationwide, whereas in Manchester alone they spent £2m. By providing the seed money, and the motivation, the government at a stroke did more than any other in living memory to end homelessness and all the problems that beget and beset it. And then – according to a report prepared for the local authority and leaked to the MEN – it thought “nah, f*** it”.
The government decided this having seen all the many improvements it had wrought for very little cash, at the same time it was warning about a massive recession, huge job losses, potential tax increases or wage freezes.
Also at the same time, private landlords are about to be released from their obligation to not evict tenants.
So this is all happening just when homelessness is about to rocket.
Between 2010 and 2019, homelessness in England rose 169%. According to Public Health England the average age of death is 44 for a male rough sleeper, and 42 for a female. Half have mental health problems, 42% an alcohol problem, and a quarter of them are under 24.
Away from the streets, the homeless who get council accommodation can be living in offices, shipping containers, or sharing kitchens and bathrooms. They will most likely be in multiple-occupancy bedsits, flats and buildings, living on benefits, or working in low-paid jobs. They won’t be dialling into the office from home, and they won’t be isolating in any meaningful way.
Whether just-about-holding-it-together in a bedsit, staying in a shelter, or sleeping in a doorway, the homeless are in ordinary times plagued by ill health, respiratory infections, and a higher need for health and social care they rarely qualify for and often seek out only as a last resort.
In a pandemic, they are a reservoir of a deadly disease. Without efforts to stop it, the virus will circulate among the homeless over the coming months, and be back with a bang this winter. All it takes is one sneeze in a subway.
The decision to cancel funding for hotel rooms just 8 weeks after lockdown began is little different to a cull of rough sleepers, whose immune systems will be no more capable of overcoming coronavirus than that of a 50-stone diabetic smoking 50-a-day.
It creates a safe space for Covid-19, where – as the government admits in its lockdown strategy – it will be untouched by tracing or treatment. And this is just Manchester. How much worse will it be, when you factor in Glasgow, Liverpool Leeds, Bristol, Newcastle… and London, with 8m people and 28m Tube journeys a week.
Johnson has all but guaranteed that when thousands more have lost their jobs and been evicted, when many of us have stopped distancing or wearing masks, and the winter flu season starts up once more, there will be plenty of people vulnerable to the ruthless pruning of coronavirus.
Covid could be eradicated, with mass testing and effective tracing. But part of that would have to include holding the homeless close. Instead, the government has chosen to never be rid of coronavirus because, despite all its bending of language and logic, it is simply not prepared to do “whatever it takes”.