By Orla Emberson
During the first wave of COVID-19, thousands were housed under the most rapid and expansive homelessness initiative undertaken in decades. Yet, evidence shows that the decision to stop the scheme has limited its potential to make a lasting difference.
Despite the continuation of various government support initiatives during the pandemic, including multiple extensions of the furlough scheme, U-turns on providing free school meals during the holidays and providing grants for the self-employed, one of the most well-received initiatives was phased out in early June. The scheme in question – ‘Everybody In’ – was a decisive commitment to protecting the homeless from infection by moving rough sleepers into both empty hotels and longer-term accommodation. But did this scheme do enough to protect the homeless, or has the decision to defund it weakened its initial success?
The ‘Everybody In’ scheme, implemented by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) sought to move every rough sleeper into England’s suddenly empty hotels to prevent the virus from spreading amongst rough sleepers or in communal shelters. Official figures suggest that 29,000 were housed in temporary or long-term accommodation. Alongside this, the eviction ban prohibited landlords in England and Wales from evicting tenants and repossessing properties during the pandemic. The government also increased some benefit payments and boosted the amount of a homeless person’s rent that could be underwritten by government benefits. Social housing policy expertshave been arguing for these policies for years. Many congratulated the government on what was arguably an unusually bold and decisive plan to shelter thousands of vulnerable individuals, with the homelessness charity Crisis among the supporters of the policies. The pace at which ‘Everybody In’ was implemented was celebrated as a welcome divergence from the weeks of ambivalence over national restrictions, representing a commitment to act in the interest of the most vulnerable in a time of crisis. A report has estimated that the measures prevented more than 21,000 infections and 266 deaths – thus, the essential course of action taken by the government saved lives and prevented the devastation seen in homeless populations in other parts of the world, such as San Francisco.
‘Everybody In’ did not end homelessness. But the speed and efficiency with which it was executed led some to suggestthat the government clearly had the capability to get people off the street. Is this a fair inference to make? The start of the pandemic presented a unique set of circumstances where there were thousands of empty rooms in hotels and hostels across the U.K., allowing the pandemic to become a catalyst for change. Although this situation would not last to serve rough sleepers’ long-term needs, the government and local councils worked to move many homeless people into settled accommodation. Indeed, the MHCLG claims that two-thirds of the 29,000 housed under the scheme in the first wave were moved into longer term-housing – defined by the government as a tenancy of at least six months either in the private sector or with a housing association or council. By committing to housing rough sleepers in settled accommodation, the government demonstrated how the pandemic provided the sense of urgency needed to take responsibility for an unsheltered homeless population in England which has been increased by more than 250% since 2010. In this way, the barriers to getting people off the streets were exposed as artificial in nature, as once the threat of infection became apparent, the government acted decisively and effectively towards homelessness. Despite the absence of a coherent homelessness policy pre-Covid, the ‘Everybody In’ scheme was one of the few success stories of 2020, at least in its early days.
However, The Independent has cast doubt over the MHCLG’s claims of long term housing, arguing that less than half of those housed under the programme have been moved into settled accommodation. Accordingly, the paper has come to the conclusion that the scheme has failed to live up to its potential to translate into permanent change. Official evidence supports this: in December the ONS announced a rise in homeless deaths for the fifth year in a row in England and Wales. Perhaps, then, ‘Everybody In’ lacks the impact needed to stop this disastrous trend. Despite Robert Jenrick pledging in March that “no one should lose their home as a result of the coronavirus epidemic”, more than 70,000 households have nevertheless become homeless. Although there have been calls for the government to reinstate the scheme, since the pandemic is far from over, there hasn’t been the same pressure for this particular issue as the furlough scheme, or continuance of free school meals over school holidays. Perhaps rough sleepers have become such a permanent fixture to our streets that we have become accustomed to their presence and therefore fail to prioritise their needs. Or has a lack of understanding over the issues forcing people to the streets or into temporary accommodation hindered efforts to help them? Just last week, the Conservative candidate for London mayor suggested that homeless people in the capital could improve their situation by saving up a £5000 deposit for a share in a newly built home, demonstrating incompetency concerning an issue which plagues the country’s capital.
The issues encountered by homeless people this winter are alarmingly severe because tougher restrictions have forced many out of their temporary accommodation, coupled with soaring rates of infection posing a life-threatening risk to people who lack the means to properly self-isolate. A devastating report from the charity Justlife has shown that some homeless people have been purposely trying to catch the virus just so they don’t have to spend winter on the streets. With hospitals across the U.K. operating at almost full capacity in their intensive care units, it is incomprehensible as to why the provision of safe accommodation for rough sleepers is deemed less urgent than it was in March. Additionally, the new set of immigration rules introduced in December outlines how rough sleeping can be “grounds for refusal or cancellation of permission to stay in the U.K.”, essentially criminalising and helping to deport migrant rough sleepers who are already forced to deal with no recourse to public funds. Furthermore, despite government updates, it has been reported that little information about testing and vaccinations has reached the homeless, likely because they are not categorised as a group on the vaccine priority list. Hence, they will be inoculated far later than others in their own age or illness category, despite arguably being more exposed to the virus due to lack of permanent shelter. Oldham has become the first town to decide that the homeless should be designated as a priority group, with the local council and GPs refuting the guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). It remains to be seen whether other areas will follow, but this raises interesting questions about the modelling done by the JCVI and the resulting lack of priority given to rough sleepers.
In response to criticism concerning the cessation of the ‘Everybody In’ scheme, the MHCLG tends to refer to the millions it has spent on homelessness last year and the intention to spend more in 2021. The government spent £700 million in 2020, before the Homelessness Prevention Grant in December pledging an additional £310 million to tackle homelessness, bringing the total funding to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping next year to more than £750 million. The MHCLG has insists this money will go to councils with high numbers of homeless people, those at risk of homelessness, or those living in temporary accommodation, to offer financial support to find a new home, to work with landlords to prevent evictions, or to provide temporary accommodation. The end of the eviction ban has also been pushed back to February, although the government are facing calls to push it back yet again.
The extra funding will hopefully go some way towards helping to alleviate the homelessness crisis in the U.K. But why should we expect the money spent in 2021 to be more effective than the money spent in the latter half of 2020? The government must salvage the urgency of ‘Everybody In’, which arguably constituted the most successful step towards ending homelessness in years. According to Crisis, it would cost around £282 million to permanently rehouse and support people housed in the current emergency hotels and hostels for the next 12 months. Considering the government has pledged more than twice that amount for 2021, there should be no excuses in the endeavour to reverse the trend of the last ten years.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.