What the Coronavirus Proved About Homelessness
By: Yasmeen Serhan
The Atlantic – July 18, 2020
Britain’s efforts to house thousands of people amid the pandemic prove that even the most intractable problems are solvable—with enough political will.
Then the coronavirus forced countries into lockdown and confined people to their homes, governments had to confront an urgent question: How do stay-at-home orders apply to those without a home?
For Britain, the answer was simple: “Bring everyone in.” Within days of imposing its national lockdown on March 23, the British government told local authorities to shelter any person in need of accommodation. It was an extraordinary task—one requiring millions of pounds, not to mention the efforts of huge numbers of officials and charities. But it worked. Thousands of unhoused people were placed in vacant hotel rooms, student dormitories, and other forms of temporary housing. A goal the government had given itself years to accomplish was achieved much more quickly.
For all the existing vulnerabilities the coronavirus has exposed within supply chains, health-care systems, and the global economy, it has also revealed how easily seemingly intractable problems can be fixed—with enough political will. Although the coronavirus hasn’t solved Britain’s homelessness problem outright, it has proved what many within the housing and charity sectors have known to be true for years: that with enough funding and prioritization, governments can bring people off the streets. The question is no longer whether or how Britain’s homelessness crisis can be resolved, but whether the country’s leaders will still be willing to expend the resources and political capital necessary to do so once the pandemic has passed.
Britain isn’t the only country that has utilized the sudden abundance of empty hotels to house its unsheltered population during the pandemic—Australia, France, and parts of the United States have done the same—but it has arguably done so with the most success. In England alone, nearly 15,000 people, including more than 90 percent of “rough sleepers,” as those who live on the streets are known, have been given some form of temporary accommodation in which to isolate during the pandemic. (Issues related to housing and homelessness are the responsibility of regional governments; similar efforts were made in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.)
Unhoused people rarely have the luxury of separating themselves from others. Conventional services available to them prior to the pandemic, such as overnight shelters, are communal and cramped, making the prospects of self-isolation all but impossible. By providing them with their own rooms, Britain managed to avoid the kind of large-scale outbreaks seen in unsheltered populations elsewhere. According to the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics, at least 16 unhoused people have died of COVID-19 in England and Wales, a figure the charity Crisis said “could have been much worse” had authorities not intervened. Though a majority of unhoused people in Britain are relatively young, they are more likely than the rest of the population to suffer from underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk of illness. People suffering from chronic homelessness have an average life expectancy decades shorter than that of the general population, and are more likely to be vulnerable to COVID-19 as well.
This “Everyone In” campaign has done more than simply put a roof over people’s heads. For many, it also provided access to vital services, including immigration advisers and charity workers. Lucy Abraham, the CEO of the London-based charity Glass Door, told me that the assistance required is often as simple as opening a bank account or replacing a lost ID—steps that could help a person secure a job and, ultimately, a path off the streets. But such help can only go so far when those seeking it don’t have a fixed place to call home. “It’s much harder to help people when they’re on the street,” Louise Casey, the former head of the government’s Rough Sleepers Unit, who has been leading Britain’s efforts to house rough sleepers during the pandemic, told me. “If they’ve had three square meals a day and a decent night’s sleep and they are feeling in a better place, you can say … ‘Let’s get your bureaucracy sorted.’”
While Britain’s success in shielding its unhoused population from the worst of the pandemic is to be lauded, it also raises a question: Why did it take a pandemic for this to happen? In the past decade, homelessness in the country has increased by 141 percent—a crisis fueled by a nationwide housing shortage, rising rents, and local budget cuts spurred by years of austerity. If more investment was the solution, what stopped the government from taking action sooner?