In the last ten years, homelessness in the UK rose 141% , driven by increasing rents, a national housing shortage, and local budget cuts linked to years of austerity. In late March, the Government moved swiftly to implement what would become one of its COVID-19 PR successes: the ‘Everyone In’ campaign. It provided funding and required local councils in England and Wales to offer emergency accommodation to every person living on the streets.
By April, nearly 15,000 people, including more than 90% of known rough sleepers had been given temporary accommodation under the scheme. For many, this was the first time they had a hotel room to wait in, while applying for permanent housing.
“To tell you the truth, corona has been the best thing that has happened to the homeless. No one has benefited as much as us,” Ryan Anderson, a former rough sleeper in London, told the NY Times. The measure also avoided large-scale outbreaks among unsheltered populations. In early May, over 80 residents and at least 7 staff tested positive for COVID-19 in a homeless shelter in Washington D.C. The UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported only 26 deaths of unhoused people in the country (as of 26 June).
But this apparently groundbreaking policy, which exposes previous lack of funding and political will, cannot be considered much more than a short-term remedy. In June, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing described government plans for new rough sleeping services, backed by £433 million to ensure 6,000 new housing units, of which 3,300 will be available in the next year. However, a looming homelessness wave indicates that these efforts will not be enough.
Driven by a historic recession, this wave will hit especially hard those people who sublet from private landlords without tenancy agreements and were consequently unable to benefit from the government’s temporary ban against evictions, but those who were helped by the ban could still be at risk. A new Shelter research piece estimated that 227,000 adult private renters (3%) have fallen behind with payments since the start of the pandemic, meaning they could lose their homes now the evictions ban has ended.
Among them, immigrants with ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) will be particularly unprotected. On 2 July, Dame Louise Casey, chair of the Government’s COVID-19 Rough Sleeping Taskforce, informed councils that, for 12 weeks, they would be allowed to support homeless European Economic Area (EEA) nationals with NRPF. This revision came just days after the government announced an additional £105m funding for English councils to keep people off the streets after the pandemic. It nevertheless excludes immigrants from outside the EEA with temporary permission to stay in the UK, a large portion of whom are BAME. They remain unable to access Universal Credit or statutory homelessness assistance after 20 September.
Even if NRPF immigration status is suspended in the aftermath of COVID-19, BAME people will continue to face more barriers in the housing market. Last year, the High Court found the Home Office’s Right to Rent policy to be racially discriminatory. Still in force as determined by an Appeal Court, it requires private landlords to check the immigration status of tenants and prospective tenants, causing them to discriminate against foreign nationals and British citizens from minority ethnic backgrounds. This makes shelter a privilege, rather than a basic right in the UK.
Already in 2017/18, at least 23% of all homeless households in the UK were BAME, while no more than 14% of the population in England and Wales is classed as BAME. Women were found to be the large majority among single parents seeking help for homelessness, which makes BAME women especially vulnerable to this situation. Unsurprisingly, London had the highest overall number of homeless households (4.2 for every 1,000 households). It also had the lowest percentage of White homeless households in the country. The local authority with the highest number of homeless households per 1,000 households was Newham (9.4 per 1,000), where Asian households made up the highest portion (36%). These trends will persist and inequalities will widen if Government policy fails to tackle homelessness in the long recovery post COVID-19.
As hotels re-open and students return to university accommodation, the thousands of people benefitted by ‘Everyone In’ cannot be left behind. While the Government’s immediate measures have guaranteed temporary housing to many, JAN Trust’s grassroots work with BAME women leads us to advocate for more profound, long-term policy. Many of our users are part of the marginalized groups disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 crisis and we will continue to support them through a community-based approach as we have done for over thirty years.