Halfway through a walk early last summer, I noticed a change around Peckham Rye train station in south-east London. Before the pandemic, there had been a semi-permanent cluster of men and women who would sleep by the entrance. Their makeshift shelters had become increasingly elaborate over the years. Mattresses, duvets and the occasional tent were common enough sights, a damning indictment of the UK’s spiralling homelessness crisis.
But I couldn’t see any trace of them that afternoon. A few months had passed since the implementation in March of Everyone In, the scheme to temporarily house rough sleepers in self-contained accommodation during the first wave of the pandemic, including in newly deserted hotels and hostels. The homelessness charity Crisis called it extraordinary, while others lined up to congratulate the government on its unusually bold course of action to shelter thousands of society’s most vulnerable people.An article in the Lancet estimated that the measures prevented more than 21,000 infections and 266 deaths. Simply put, Everyone In saved lives.
But the scheme didn’t even last the year. In early June, it was reported that funding had been withdrawn; the government pointed to the £3.2bn given to local authorities to deal with the fallout of the pandemic (though none of this figure was specifically given over for homelessness). In September, £91.5m of government funding was split between 274 councils for their own rough sleeping plans. This was eventually joined by £10m announced on Friday. But it remains to be seen what effect this approach will have compared with the straightforward, fully funded initiative that made such a difference in spring 2020.
It’s hard to understand what exactly has changed to make the provision of safe accommodation any less urgent. In late October, I wrote about the difficulties facing the UK’s network of winter shelters as they scrambled to provide Covid-safe accommodation. Every winter sees a spike in avoidable deaths among homeless people, as temperatures plummet. In 2021, the threat isn’t just from the cold but a new variant of Covid-19.
The inertia makes no sense until you consider that this is a government that has repeatedly lied and bungled its way through its pandemic response, with little more than lip service and broken promises offered to the most vulnerable. Why would the tens of thousands of people across the UK living with various forms of homelessness be treated any differently, after an initial flurry of concern? Without anything in the way of political capital or influence, they are little more than an irrelevance to an administration that has repeatedly proved itself incapable of much else besides self-preservation and crisis PR.
It’s almost as if the state doesn’t want us to remember that it has the means to significantly fix the problem of rough sleeping, lest this create a precedent of basic humaneness that it may be expected to hold to. Homelessness in all its forms has skyrocketed since 2010 under various Tory administrations. Austerity has butchered welfare and community services. And though the newly announced extra funding is better than nothing, new figures compiled by the Observer show that more than 70,000 households have been made homeless since the start of the pandemic – despite the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, pledging in March 2020 that “no one should lose their home as a result of the coronavirus epidemic”. It is clear proof of a failing “strategy” masked by sporadic U-turns and hurried concessions.
That’s why when Everyone In was first announced, it almost came as a surprise. After weeks of dithering over national restrictions, its decisiveness was both welcome and unexpected. About 15,000 rough sleepers were housed in the following months, until numbers gradually tapered off in the summer. Though the scheme didn’t “solve homelessness”, and had its imperfections, it was clearly effective, in part because of its clarity of purpose. Friday’s announcement is more akin to the rash behaviour that has characterised the government since the first wave. Support slowly tapers off; this is followed by outrage and concerted pressure by charities and campaigners – and then we get a belated quasi-U-turn.
The vision and urgency of the original iteration of Everyone In needs to be revived. The end of the eviction ban may have been kicked down the line again until February, redundancies are soaring and the number of young people sleeping rough in London stands at a record high, as do the numbers of deaths among homeless people in England and Wales. I’ve seen with my own eyes the gradual return of people sleeping rough. We know that the roots and causes of homelessness are fiendishly complex, and no single scheme can serve as a magic bullet to “solve it” overnight. But we are also now aware of what can be done right here and now to prevent the unnecessary deaths.
In early January 2021, I took another afternoon walk down to the centre of Peckham. The streets around the station were almost deserted, save for a few workmen and hurried-looking people clutching bags of food shopping. It just wasn’t the sort of day to be outside if you had the option to go anywhere else. But down one of the thin sidestreets, there was a battered mattress with a fresh-looking sheet pulled across it, though I couldn’t see any trace of its owner. I turned back for home as the light was starting to fade, right into another freezing night.