Helping the Homeless: Can’t or Won’t?

As recently reported by Metro, the start of September didn’t just mark the end of ‘Eat out to Help Out’ and back to school – it also marked the day in which dozens of rough sleepers were turfed out back onto the streets after three months of being housed in hotels.

As society (and more importantly to our Government, the economy) works to navigate a ‘new normal’, hospitality industries are opening up and ‘staycations’ are on the rise. Of course, with hotels fundamentally being a business, housing the homeless in this way was always going to be a temporary measure, but the way that these people are being callously and cynically thrown back onto the streets after months of warm showers and beds is a new type of cruel.

What makes this move especially disturbing is the fact that whilst hotels and local tourist hotspots are open for business, many homelessness services that rough sleepers rely on – such as day centres and night shelters – remain closed. This means that the homeless are once again forced to re-transition to life on the streets without any practical or welfare-focused support.

When a report by The Guardian in June raised concerns of what would happen to the homeless once the three-month ‘Everyone In’ scheme expired, a spokesperson for the Ministries of Housing, Community and Local Government said that they ‘have accelerated plans– backed by £433m – which will deliver 6,000 additional homes for former rough sleepers across the country.’

Well, where are these homes? With the number of rough sleepers in London reportedly reaching a 15-year high, a vague ‘acceleration’ in woolly ‘plans’ isn’t enough – especially as the colder months start approaching. With only one hotel in London continuing to house the homeless, what we need to see are results.

But even then, the lucky few who get alternative housing will barely scratch the surface of the homelessness problem. This is because a large proportion of the homeless community (at least 50% in some areas according to Citizens UK) in the UK are foreign nationals. Because of their immigration status, they are classed as having ‘no recourse to public funds’. This then means that the fabled rehousing scheme doesn’t apply to them, leaving these foreign nationals out in the cold – literally.

In what Citizens UK calls ‘a national catastrophe in the making’, it is clear that the disease of British exceptionalism will continue to prevail despite the world-changing pandemic of the last six months. The stark reality is that these people will die if left unaided, but I suppose that in the Government’s eyes, as long as their death can’t be attributed to that pesky Covid death toll, it doesn’t matter.

So, whilst people may be praising the generosity of the Government’s £3.2bn ‘Everyone In’ scheme, their lack of foresight beyond the three-month initiative combined with their stark exclusion of foreign nationals makes it clear that this scheme wasn’t really about the homeless at all: it was about the Government. By their logic, less homeless on the streets meant less people getting infected with and subsequently spreading Covid-19. A noble cause? Of course it is. But their action following this scheme demonstrates that this was a mission not based on welfare concerns, but based on keeping numbers and tolls as low as possible. Of course, it helps that a bit of positive PR was chucked in.

One must also beg the question of why it took a global pandemic for the Government to finally take the homelessness crisis seriously. Is a 21% rise in rough sleepers in London in just a year not a terrifying statistic in and of itself? Whilst the Government’s usual line has previously been along the lines of ‘the homelessness issue cannot be solved overnight’, their response to the issue in light of the Covid-19 pandemic has seemingly proven that it, in fact, can.

The money they invested in helping the homeless didn’t cause the economy the collapse (that was lockdown), so what’s to say that they can’t make similar investments in the future? After all, even if Richard Branson doesn’t receive his planned Government bail-out, he will still have a four-poster, king-sized bed to sleep in. The people on the streets just have cardboard.

Ultimately, the Government’s near-immediate response to the homelessness crisis at a time where doing so would benefit them leads us to an uncomfortable truth. Nobody’s hands are tied, and nothing has stopped the Government from allocating more resources to helping the homeless in the past.

For the Government, helping the homelessness has never been a matter of ‘can’t’, it’s always been a matter of ‘won’t’.

Words by Charlotte Colombo

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