When the UK government started to shut down vast swathes of the country’s economy and public institutions in late March, it was hard for Alan Waitley to escape the indignities of being without a permanent place to live.
Waitley, who has lacked a secure home since 2017, lost access to showers after the community centre that he visited daily was forced to shut. His ability to use email and the internet disappeared after the closure of libraries in the south-west London suburb where he had been sleeping in church-run night shelters. The barring of the doors of the McDonald’s burger chain took away the place where Waitley (not his real name) had stayed warm between the night shelter’s closure at 7am and the day centre opening at 8.30am.
These kinds of privations were shared by the thousands of others who, like Waitley, lacked a home long before coronavirus struck or who have, despite a formal ban on evictions, found themselves newly forced to sleep on streets, in parks or in doorways during the weeks of lockdown. “When everything started closing, everyone had a problem because it was difficult to find anywhere to go,” says Waitley, a 50-year-old with an RP accent.
Yet as he was dealing with this sudden change to his circumstances, Waitley also became part of an effort to stamp out homelessness that would have been unthinkable just weeks before. The charity Glass Door, which organised the shelters where he had been sleeping, found him a space in a hotel under a hastily devised emergency plan funded by central government and the Greater London Authority.
Spurred by concerns that homeless people would be vulnerable to the virus and might spread it, the Everyone In scheme aims to reverse in just three months a decade of steady rises in the numbers of people lacking a proper home.
On a single night last autumn, counts and estimates of those in England facing the most extreme form of homelessness — sleeping rough on the streets — found 4,266 people. While that was a reduction on the figures for 2017 and 2018, it was more than double the 1,768 estimated in 2010. A wider count that included those sleeping on friends’ sofas, in their cars and in other forms of unsuitable accommodation found numbers in England rose from 120,000 to 153,000 between 2010 and 2017, the last year for which figures are available. London, where more than one in four of the rough sleepers counted last autumn were found, has the most acute problem.
After years when the situation mostly worsened, veterans of the battle to get decent housing for more people have greeted the emergency measures with enthusiasm. As well as the moves into hotels and a ban on evictions, the government has increased the generosity of some benefit payments and boosted the amount of a homeless person’s rent that can be underwritten by government benefits.
“Some of these things are what we’ve been arguing for for years,” says Suzanne Fitzpatrick, professor of housing and social policy at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University. The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government says it has found accommodation for nearly 15,000 people across England under Everyone In. “These were really big wins which happened really quickly and decisively,” Fitzpatrick says.
The emergency measures — under which people suspected of having coronavirus have been housed in separate hotels from those clear of the disease — have so far been effective at avoiding the kind of large-scale outbreak that has swept homeless populations in other places, such as San Francisco.
They also relieved Waitley of lugging his belongings through a dreary routine of day centres and coffee shops. He says he “thoroughly enjoyed” his stay in the modest hotel in Hammersmith where he was first placed, before moving on in mid-May to a new facility nearer his old home. “I was able to do some study and practice [playing the guitar],” Waitley says. “I found the days just flew by.” He hopes to look for office work but also develop his skills as a music producer and composer.
Yet some hotels like the one where Waitley first stayed are already being emptied of their homeless residents and the rest are likely to return to housing paying guests within weeks. And every evening areas such as Trafalgar Square are still filled with hundreds of people missed by Everyone In or who are newly on the streets.
The question is whether the emergency changes to housing and benefits rules, all of which are currently temporary, can be translated into finding long-term ways of putting a roof over people’s heads. “The important thing is what’s going to happen next,” Fitzpatrick says.
The roots of England’s homelessness crisis are evident in the east London area around Bonny Downs Community Association, a charity based in East Ham. Seven years ago, Angie Allgood, a smiling, energetic social worker, first organised a network of churches, including her own Bonny Downs Baptist Church, to provide winter night shelters under the name NEWway Project. Each of the seven churches hosts one night a week.
Allgood, who is the fourth generation of her family to live on the same street in Bonny Downs, acted after seeing growing numbers of rough sleepers in East Ham. Speaking in a back office littered with supplies, she blames changes to the welfare system for putting secure housing out of many people’s reach.
Her area’s homelessness problem emerged in 2013 when the then coalition government froze or cut many claimants’ entitlements. Rents kept rising but the amount of support that benefit recipients could claim for housing costs was frozen. “For me, there were big connections between welfare reforms, homelessness and people really struggling,” Allgood says.
The charity’s face-masked volunteers are preparing emergency parcels for delivery. Many are destined for local immigrants with “no recourse to public funds” — members of a one-million-strong group, mostly from outside Europe, who are barred from receiving any financial or other support from central or local government.
While there are no official figures, groups working with the homeless estimate about one in five of London’s homeless people and one in 10 of those across England are barred from receiving public money. About 100,000 people in this group are at risk of losing their jobs, and their incomes, in the current economic crisis.
The experience of Ike Iwuchukwu illustrates how restrictions on benefits can pitch people on to the streets. Iwuchukwu, 48, returned to London in March 2019 after three years in Nigeria looking after his dying mother. Even though he is a British citizen born in Glasgow, his local council said his time abroad meant he failed the habitual residence test, a vague provision often used to bar people recently arrived in the UK from receiving benefits. He was unable to find a job. “I didn’t have enough finance,” Iwuchukwu says by telephone from the hotel in Kensington where Crisis, the homeless charity, placed him in March. “I had no option but to be on the streets.”
In Bonny Downs, people at risk of losing their homes might once have been accommodated in the area’s utilitarian council low-rises, says Allgood. As in much of the UK, these now belong to private landlords. “The opportunity for social housing to catch people just completely went because there was no social housing.”
She says local councils now place tenants in private rented properties that are “completely beyond their means”. The tenants are then quickly back with the council when they fall behind on rent and face eviction. “The way that they discharge their duties of support is to get people into the private rented sector and hence the whole cycle starts again.”
The stark reality of what happens to those who fall through the cracks in the system is on display in the space behind an office block in central London that Paulo Gouveia, known as Mig, has called home for the past seven months. A bag of belongings is wedged into a corner by a silver, hard-shell suitcase. His mattress is a sheet of cardboard that does little to soften the discomfort of spending long hours on the street’s concrete paving slabs.
Gouveia, who is 55 and sports a neat, greying beard, is vague about his country of origin but very clear that he has lived in the UK since October 1987. Like many facing housing problems, he focuses his immediate frustrations on his local council. He says he first contacted it in November last year after his landlord unexpectedly barred him from entering his flat. After numerous visits to council offices, Gouveia says he has not received a promised appointment at a centre meant to assess his needs.
Being outside the system means Gouveia was not offered a place in a hotel when lockdown came into force. To charge his mobile phone, he has to trudge nearly two miles every day from his sleeping place in Victoria to Elephant and Castle, south London. He went several weeks without a shower before charity workers told him of a place where he could make an appointment to wash — by walking two miles in the other direction. Pre-lockdown life on the streets was, he says, “great” by comparison.
Waitley also blames his fall into homelessness largely on his council’s failure to help. His problems began when his father, an accountant with whom he lived and for whom he worked, developed a brain tumour and died. The landlord allowed him to stay on in their rented flat but later demanded an extra £250 a month, which Waitley could not afford. He slept on friends’ sofas, then in his car. But, as his problems mounted, a housing officer at his local council told him middle-aged single men were not a serious concern. “I was considered low priority because, I was told, ‘You’re not an alcoholic or drug addict or mentally ill,’” Waitley recalls.
One woman, who asks to be identified only as Jennifer, says that when she returned to the UK after some time living in the US, her local council told her she failed the habitual residence test, before legal action by a homelessness charity overturned its ruling. “I’m disgusted with the way that some of the workers want to treat people when you go up to the housing offices,” she says.
The housing professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick says councils have suffered from a fundamental mismatch of powers and responsibilities. In 2010, the government devolved most responsibility for tackling homelessness to local councils.
Spending cuts, however, have slashed council budgets by 40 per cent and central government still holds the levers that control the housing market and benefits system. As a result, councils have struggled to justify devoting significant resources to helping the homeless. “It’s really unfair and inappropriate to expect local government to reverse the impact of the structural factors that fundamentally drive homelessness trends,” says Fitzpatrick.
The urgency of the challenge is clear on revisiting one of the hotels that has been serving as emergency accommodation. The tourist hotel near Victoria Station — one of scores in the area’s elegant 19th-century terraces — is already quiet and dark, with notices in the window telling would-be guests it is not currently accepting business. The last of the homeless people being accommodated in the facility left on June 12, along with the workers from Thames Reach, a charity working to ensure they were not forced to return to the streets.
The current picture contrasts sharply with the scene in May, when Katherine Cowling, a manager for Thames Reach, was working frantically to find places for 27 people rushed into the hotel when lockdown began. As Cowling perched with her laptop on a double bed one morning in late May, a beaming young woman came in with a thank-you note for Cowling’s role in finding her a studio flat.
Simply having the clients in one place had been a big advantage, Cowling said. It highlighted how marginalised many without homes are that much of the work had involved providing them with basics such as proper personal identification and telephones. The staff had also helped residents to apply for government benefits. “We have support staff here from 7.30 in the morning until 10 at night and then night staff,” Cowling said.
She was hoping that, as a result, even the most vulnerable would stand a better chance of avoiding the crushing disappointment of returning to the streets shortly after receiving the keys to a home of their own.
Of the 25 left in the hotel before it closed, Cowling and her colleagues found places in housing association properties for 11, while another nine either moved straight into private rented property or were waiting to move into such properties. One went into hospital and another into supported specialist housing for young people. Just three had to be moved to another hotel. “Settling them in, making sure they’re not just going to abandon it because it’s overwhelming, is easier said than done but not impossible,” Cowling said. “We do it all the time.”
Hotels such as those in Victoria have prevented the cataclysmic levels of disease transmission that were feared among homeless people during the coronavirus outbreak. Death rates from Covid-19 have been highest in areas with the worst homelessness problems — Newham, the borough that includes Bonny Downs, had the third-highest age-adjusted mortality rate of any local authority in England and Wales to the end of May. There have, however, been no reports in the UK of big disease outbreaks among homeless people.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, which helped to fund Everyone In through an extra £3.2bn handed to English local authorities to cover the various extra costs they face because of the outbreak, trumpets the success of the scheme. “Partners in councils, charities and the hotel industry have made huge efforts to help provide emergency accommodation . . . during the pandemic,” says the department.
Yet, after a decade when the UK’s social safety net has developed ever larger holes, Catherine Parsons, Thames Reach’s director of operations, is concerned that charities like hers devote so much time to people who lose their homes mainly because they are poor. About a third of the people in the Victoria hotel were leaving every day for work that paid too little to keep them housed. “They’re all people that want to be feeling like adults, rather than in the situation where they feel like they’re living off handouts,” she says.
Alexandru Caragea’s story illustrates the calculations facing the worst paid. Originally from Romania, he worked until March as a caretaker at a PizzaExpress branch in central London and never felt in a position to rent accommodation because of the unpredictability of his pay, which varied between £1,000 and £1,200 but was sometimes lower. Instead, he slept in a makeshift tent of cardboard boxes near Trafalgar Square. “I was basically able to buy my own food and get a gym membership to be able to shower,” Caragea says.
A deep tan and long beard testify to how, since losing his job, he has had to spend even more of his time outside. Caragea says the manager dismissed him following a dispute over his uniform, while PizzaExpress says Caragea resigned. He now relies for food on organisations such as Under One Sky, a group started eight years ago to befriend London’s homeless people. He does not want to apply for benefits and is unsure he would be eligible, but says: “It’s becoming increasingly difficult without any kind of income.”
Parsons says a “financial solution” to the problems of economically marginalised people such as Caragea would leave homeless charities free to help the mentally distressed, traumatised or addicted people who conform to most people’s mental image of the homeless. “That’s what we’re good at.”
Yet there are more immediate problems to solve first. The housing department insists it wants “as many people as possible” who have been brought off the streets to be able to stay under shelter. In late May, it promised £433m to provide 6,000 new supported housing units meant to help previously homeless people. However, lead times for building new housing mean that only 3,300 will be available within the next year.
Facing growing concern from homelessness organisations that hotel closures might force some people back on to the streets, the department this week announced £105m of funding for councils to ensure that none of those housed under Everyone In will be returned to the streets. The money will pay either to maintain hotels as accommodation for the homeless or to move those now in hotels to other places such as university halls of residence. The department will also bring forward to this financial year £16m of previously pledged spending on drug and alcohol support services for homeless people.
The move allows further breathing room for groups struggling to find permanent homes for those brought in off the streets. Neil Parkinson, a case worker for Glass Door, says it currently has only 50 firm offers for new housing for the 200 people it helped to move into hotels. “Many are facing huge barriers and there is no clear path for them,” he says.
Waitley is one of the 50 who does have a place to go. The hotel in his borough will provide longer-term temporary accommodation, thanks to the work of staff from homelessness charity St Mungo’s who persuaded his council it had to take responsibility for him. “It’s progress because they weren’t accepting me or helping me at all with any temporary accommodation,” he says. “So they’ve effectively been given a bit of a push by the government.”
The housing department insists nobody should end up on the streets. “We’ve been clear councils must continue to provide safe accommodation to vulnerable rough sleepers and support those moving on from emergency accommodation,” it says.
Yet a visit to Trafalgar Square makes it clear that a wave of new problems could hit those clearing up after the current crisis. As the evening air begins to cool, long queues of people wrapped in blankets wait for the nightly arrival of charities’ food trucks.
Parsons says Thames Reach encountered 421 new rough sleepers this April, against about 200 in a typical April. An official tally of London’s homeless had to be abandoned due to lockdown pressures, but the charity’s findings match the experience of multiple other groups working with the homeless.
In Trafalgar Square, Brian Whiting, an outreach worker from Under One Sky, expresses the deep concern that many involved in working with England’s homeless feel about those who make contact with workers, only to find the system overwhelmed. “We’re finding people on the street who were primed to be picked up and haven’t been,” he says.
Among those Whiting has tried to help is Miguel Hernandez, a 23-year-old chef from Spain. Hernandez, not his real name, explains how he was living in a cheap backpackers’ hostel when the restaurant he was working in closed due to the lockdown. His job and income disappeared instantly.
So far, support from Under One Sky has saved him from homelessness. But his eyes are wide with shock at the sudden downturn in his fortunes. In his broken English, he expresses disbelief at seeing rows of huddled people each night waiting for food amid the classical grandeur of London’s most famous square. “I’ve never seen that — a massive queue of people waiting for something to eat. It’s not just homeless people. It’s normal people who had jobs before who are on the street.”
Robert Wright is the FT’s social policy correspondent
About the photographs: Anthony Luvera, an Australian-born photographer and artist based in London, has been working with people experiencing homelessness for 18 years. He has collaborated with individuals across the UK to create a photographic archive of their experiences and assisted self-portraits; luvera.com
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