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I Work With People Experiencing Homelessness – for Them, the Crisis Is Worsening by the Day

by Tom Zagoria

@tzagoria @labhomeless_cam
19 June 2020
  • Estimated read time: 5 mins

While the government dithers and deflects, we are potentially weeks away from a calamitous worsening of the homelessness crisis.

In its often recycled and re-announced (but passed-off as new) policy announcements, the government has endlessly asserted that 90% of rough sleepers have been accommodated”. 

But as a homelessness shelter worker and activist in the Labour Homelessness Campaign, I know this statistic to be a fallacy.

Working on the ground, I see the crisis worsen every day. 

My commute home from work often goes through Westminster at 1 am, where I see dozens of rough sleepers camped out under alcoves, many of whom I know personally. 

At the start of the pandemic, progress in housing people was slow. I have friends, who were desperate accommodation because of significant underlying health conditions, but forced to wait weeks for promised accommodation, ‘self-isolating’ barricaded inside tents and blankets on the streets. 

They stayed there until police told them they were a public health risk and needed to leave Westminster and go “anywhere else”. In a pandemic, of course, we’re all public health risks, but, after years of stigmatization, this kind of language is all too familiar to rough sleepers. 

That isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made; I’ve seen a tremendous effort on the ground by homelessness workers, activists and volunteers. Each week there are more people entering the shelter I work in and being admitted to the network of shelters, temporary accommodation and adapted hotels across the country. 

Homelessness could be about to rise to historic levels. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, homelessness minister Luke Hall has said that more than 15,000 rough sleepers have been accommodated; roughly three times the number of rough sleepers the government previously admitted existed. 

Working in a shelter and speaking to rough sleepers across London, I’ve seen people accommodated who I’d never have expected to be indoors – people with what’s referred to in the impersonal language of the homelessness sector as “complex needs”. These needs can refer to anything from alcohol addiction strong enough that going cold turkey leads to life-threatening seizures, to mental health issues and paranoia. 

Action by local authorities and homelessness groups is supporting many thousands in need. But for all the positive stories, homelessness could be about to rise to historic levels.

Three politically-created factors are about to collide: the end of the scheme placing rough sleepers in hotels, continuously underfunded homelessness and housing services failing to match rough sleepers into appropriate long-term accommodation, and a Covid-driven economic crisis. 

Homeless migrants are most at risk. 

In many local authorities, we are weeks away from the end of the ‘Everyone In’ scheme where rough sleepers have been housed in hotels and other temporary accommodation. 

Rough sleepers staying in hotels in Westminster have told me they will be evicted by 3 July, many with no further offers of support, and this picture is repeated in councils across the country.

The situation is most dire for homeless migrants with the inhumane No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) status – so obscene that even Boris Johnson didn’t seem to believe it was real when asked about it in a select committee – who have no real prospect of getting support. But even among those who can access such support,  many thousands will be placed in unaffordable private rented accommodation, far from their support networks, and with little prospect of remaining housed long-term.

They will join the thousands of people already on the brink of becoming newly homeless, not because of the complex needs you get from years on the streets, but because of a simple economic need – affordable housing in the midst of a recession.

The picture is bleak. Rents have outpaced wages for more than a decade. Covid has left precarious workers unemployed or underemployed, Universal Credit remains impossible to rely on, domestic violence services are underfunded and a racist hostile environment against migrants denies many of them support.

The system breeds precarity.

When the evictions ban ends on 23 August, with no help to alleviate rent arrears, the number of homeless applications to local authorities are set to spike.

Since 2012,  the single biggest cause of homelessness has been private rental sector eviction (rather than the previous main causes of family and relationship breakdown). When someone enters a shelter they are given an assessment. During these assessments, I have heard countless stories of enforced precarity – zero-hours contracts, insecure housing – by a system that conflates insecurity with free market choice. 

That system is still in place, and will, as the economy plummets, drag thousands down with it. 

Already, in London, Sadiq Khan has said that 400-500 people are becoming newly homeless each week. Services overstretched by more than £1bn every year in cuts don’t have the capacity to meet this challenge. 

I see this every day. Despite the urgency created by the pandemic, it takes hours on the phone to make housing referrals, as housing officers work to match their growing daily list of applicants with the much shorter list of available accommodation. 

For those who can’t prove a ‘local connection’ (which in practice often means applicants need to have been legally resident within a local area for a number of months – difficult for long-term rough sleepers to prove) the only way to access support is generally through the government’s Streetlink system, where members of the public can refer people they find sleeping rough.

Being referred on Streetlink is many rough sleepers’ only hope of accommodation. But anyone who’s ever used the service will know it usually doesn’t work the first time – or the second.

There just aren’t enough outreach workers to find and assess everyone who’s been referred on Streetlink. When individuals aren’t found, they aren’t recorded as homeless, and the government can go on preening itself with manipulated statistics about 90% of rough sleepers being accommodated. 

Better to break the law than to break the poor. 

To halt the growing humanitarian crisis on our streets, the government must take decisive and immediate action.

To facilitate this, it should be working to use the nearly 500,000 homes sitting empty across the country to house the people who need them.

Until this is done, and until there is long-term, sustainable accommodation available for everyone, there should not be a single eviction and every hotel in use should continue to accommodate rough sleepers.

But of course, compassionate, timely action from this government is all but impossible given that it can’t even own up to the scale of the crisis. 

In the face of the government’s inaction and out-right lies, we must resist the unjust system that is content to leave thousands more on the streets. 

Instead of defunding the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, it should be expanding it, along with scrapping all immigration and ‘non-priority need’ restrictions on support, so that every homeless applicant can be housed. 

We must organise eviction resistance and open up empty buildings. Meanwhile, local authorities must refuse to accept austerity cuts or cooperate with the government’s hostile environment, adopting the radical mantras of their historic predecessors in Poplar and Liverpool; that it is better to break the law than to break the poor. 

Covid-19 has unpicked the logic of neoliberalism, highlighting that public wellbeing depends on everyone having a home to self-isolate in. But this government is inured to suffering on our streets. Every single person who passes through my shelter is a victim of a politically-manufactured crisis, built up over years of putting profit before people. 

This crisis can be stopped but the impulse will need to come from all of us, demanding that no one is left behind. 

A group of more than 100 homelessness and migrants’ rights organisations have published an open letter calling for local authorities to guarantee sanctuary and support to NRPF rough sleepers, and demand the government does the same. You can add your name here. 

Tom Zagoria is a homelessness worker in London and co-founder of the Labour Homelessness Campaign.

Published 19 June 2020

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