God’s waiting room

‘The homelessness charity St Mungo’s believes the pandemic can lead to a significant long-term reduction in rough sleeping when the lockdown ends. But the current situation suggests this vision might as well have been expressed by Walter Mitty’

You’d have to avert your eyes to miss the rising levels of destitution in Britain over the last decade, but optimists believe the coronavirus lockdown has finally exposed how unprepared the country is to cope with our chronic social problems. They insist that there’s no way we can just bounce back to the way things were before—change is surely on the horizon. I wish I shared their rosy outlook.

The homelessness charity St Mungo’s believes the pandemic can lead to a significant long-term reduction in rough sleeping when the lockdown ends. “It’s a silver lining in a very grey sky,” claimed charity CEO Howard Sinclair. Sinclair thinks that while rough sleepers are cooped up in hotel rooms their long-term addictions and mental health problems can be solved; when the lockdown ends they’ll be brand new people. I hope Sinclair’s right, but the current situation suggests his vision might as well have been expressed by Walter Mitty.

In March the treasury had a whip round and coughed up £3.2 million for local councils to address rough sleeping how they saw fit. The government promised to eliminate rough sleeping altogether during the lockdown, but throwing £3.2 million at this crisis is like trying to extinguish a blazing ten-story building with a water pistol. If you spread those millions over the 25,000 people who slept rough last year, it works out at £128 per head, which makes the sum look more like an act of contempt than a serious attempt to protect rough sleepers from the virus.

Councils and local charities have done their best in the absence of meaningful help from Westminster. Five thousand four hundred homeless people across England and Wales are currently being housed in hotels. However, many are still slipping through the net or being cast out of it like detritus on a shrimp trawler. Some migrants with no recourse to public funds, who are reluctant to ask for help in ordinary times due to fear of the Home Office’s hostile environment policy, remain on the streets. Most rough sleepers have serious substance dependency and mental health issues. Simply putting a roof over their head is not going to solve their problems if the wraparound support is not there, and, in many cases, it isn’t.

Some rough sleepers are currently accommodated in B&Bs, left to their own devices while drug dealers, equipped with better PPE than some NHS staff, prowl outside doling out baggies behind face masks and plastic gloves. Then these very troubled people can be returned to the streets for something as little as a few tokes on a spliff. Daisy (not their real name), an outreach worker in Manchester, said that the city centre looked like “god’s waiting room” a week after the lockdown was announced, with dozens of rough sleepers, who have been evicted from hotels, congregating in Piccadilly, fighting over cheap cider while unable to wash or change clothes.

The picture in UK cities has improved since March. The support offered in hotels is having a transformative effect on some, but many remain uncertain about their future. I fear that progress will be as temporary as the respite rough sleepers receive around Christmas, when festive cheer and cold temperatures tug on people’s heartstrings until normal service resumes in the new year.

There’s no indication, absolutely none, that things are going to get better for Britain’s homeless people post-lockdown. The Victorian appreciation society—better known as the Conservative party—don’t exactly have a glowing record in this area. But people believe things will change because the inevitable harm done to the economy will show us that the market can’t solve all our problems. However, recent history suggests that a far bleaker story will unfold over the coming months.

Remember when those fat cats turned their banks into casinos, bet on the housing market collapsing and received enormous bonuses when they were proved right? They were then let completely off the hook and we got the blame. It was overspending on schools, hospitals, youth clubs, the police and social care rather than city greed that was the problem. We all—except the super rich—had to tighten our belts; austerity was a necessity.

Over the last decade the results have been catastrophic for the poorest and most vulnerable. Thirty per cent or 4.1 million UK children are now living in poverty, there are more elderly people living in severe poverty in the UK than anywhere in western Europe and homelessness has risen year-on-year since 2010. Pretty much the same people who produced these appalling outcomes are still in charge and pragmatism has never been their driving force.

The truth is austerity was never about balancing the books, reducing debt or living within our means. It was always about an ideological commitment to whisking us back in time to the 19th century, an era of small government and laissez-faire economics where charity provided the nation’s safety net. Remind you of anything?

The pandemic may have convinced a government that’s not hamstrung by ideology to radically change the way we confront homelessness, but not this lot. An unparalleled global recession is supposedly heading our way, which will provide a golden opportunity for them to further eviscerate the nation’s safety net with more austerity. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has not mentioned any cuts, but he did say that emergency spending would “need to be paid back at some point” and has alluded to “chipping in together to right the ship.”

But maybe I’m completely off the mark. Perhaps the government will see the error of its ways, don a red flag, denounce global capitalism, write off debts from the bottom up then temporarily house the homeless in empty mansions while they embark on a social house-building programme unlike anything seen in the western world. If that sounds plausible then, please, keep hope alive, but I think the best chance we have for change is to remember how inept they’ve been during this crisis and kick them to the kerb in 2024.


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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