Sonia Faleiro is a writer based in London and the author of “The Good Girls,” which will be published by Bloomsbury/Grove Atlantic in 2021.
LONDON — For Nicola Phillips, things had been looking up.
Last year, Phillips, 47, was living in a tent. Now, she sells copies of the Big Issue — a magazine sold on the street by homeless people, who keep part of the profits — in Truro, a city in southwest England. The income, on top of the funds she receives from the government, has allowed her to feed herself and her dog while she looks for a job and couch surfs.
But now, as streets and public spaces across the U.K. clear out in response to the coronavirus epidemic, Phillips fears she, and people like her, won’t be able to make ends meet.
“It’s really quiet,” said Phillips. “And people who are out won’t come near us. We can stand for five hours and not sell one magazine.”
“We need to find people and test them, give emergency assistance to those who have the virus and good advice to those who don’t” — Matthew Downie, director at Crisis
“If I don’t sell, I don’t earn,” she added. She expected to soon join the queue outside her local food bank.
Homeless people are among the vulnerable groups most at risk of contracting the coronavirus, and of suffering from the economic and social fallout of the epidemic. They are also among the most overlooked.
The problem is widespread and on the rise in the U.K., where some 320,000 people — about one in every 200 Brits — are homeless, and at least 84,000 households are living in temporary accommodation, according to December 2019 data. A recent study showed that nine in 10 homes across the U.K. remain unaffordable for people on housing benefits, pushing families into homelessness or emergency shelters.
Many rough sleepers and homeless people have pre-existing conditions, due to exposure and poor nutrition, making them particularly at risk of having complications if they are infected. They are three times more likely than the average person to have a serious respiratory problem, and their lifespan is already just 45 for men and 43 for women, according to the Office for National Statistics. More than half have mental health problems, says the National Health Service (NHS).
“So on the one hand you’re more likely to get it, to be severely affected by it, even die from it, and on the other you’re also completely unable to follow the guidelines that have been recommended for the general population,” said Matthew Downie, the director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, a national U.K. charity for homelessness.
Because many rough sleepers don’t have regular access to information, many could even be unaware of the epidemic and authorities’ recommendations of how to protect yourself from becoming infected.
Even if they are aware of official advice, following recommendations on social distancing, isolation and hand washing is extremely difficult in many cases. Those who rely on hostels and night shelters often live dormitory style, sharing bathrooms, which increases their chances of catching and transmitting the virus.
Centers haven’t received timely guidance on how to prevent the spread of coronavirus. It wasn’t until March 16, more than a month after the first confirmed U.K. cases at the end of January, that the government offered instructions on how to deal with rough sleepers showing symptoms. And while it advised on how to isolate those already in the shelter — “they should stay in their room” — it didn’t say how to respond to newcomers who displayed symptoms.
As a result, Glassdoor, one of London’s largest network of night shelters, was forced to turn five people away last week, said Rachael Lindsay, the charity’s communications officer. One person who was turned away with flu-like symptoms had to sleep at railway stations, another lay down outside a church, and a third was discharged from hospital after being rejected for testing.
Anyone who is turned away will have no choice but to sleep in the open — an inhumane option at any time, but particularly so in the midst of a pandemic. It will almost certainly ensure their condition worsens, and will create conditions for the further spread of the disease whether at stations, churches, hospitals, parks, or elsewhere.
“We need to find people and test them, give emergency assistance to those who have the virus and good advice to those who don’t,” said Downie, of Crisis. “And in the end the only answer is to give everyone self-contained accommodation with their own bathroom.”
As the virus continues to spread, it’s likely that the already limited number of free spaces available to the homeless will disappear completely, leaving people without shelter or support. Already, said Lindsay, Glassdoor isn’t taking in anyone new, even when others drop out or find housing.
The government last week announced a £3.2 million emergency support fund for rough sleepers that will reimburse local councils for the cost of accommodation and services to those who need to self-isolate.
That’s too little, too late, experts say. Rather than offer a coordinated, centralized response, it places the onus on councils to act swiftly at a time when they are already overburdened.
John Bird, a life Peer who was a rough sleeper and went on to found the Big Issue, sees a potential solution to the looming crisis in calling on wealthy owners of empty properties in central London — home to some of the country’s most expensive real estate — to allow homeless people to move in for a short term.
A 2017 investigation jointly conducted by the website Who Owns England and the Guardian found 1,652 properties listed as unoccupied in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The borough of Southwark, according to the same website, had even more vacant properties: 5,418 as of 2017, with 1,035 empty for more than two years.
Bird admitted the properties’ owners — some of whom are oligarchs and members of royal families — would be unlikely to want to comply but added: “This is an emergency. We are at war with coronavirus. We have to share resources and support each other.”
Others have also floated potential ways to address the problem.
Glasgow City Council recently announced that it is identifying furnished flats as well as self-contained spaces within communal accommodation to be used as spaces where homeless people can self-isolate. Two hotel chains have approached the Crisis charity offering to temporarily open their doors to the homeless, given they have low occupancy rates during the epidemic.
The problem isn’t a lack of housing, it’s a lack of will.
“You don’t want the poorest among us clogging hospital beds because you haven’t been good with your support when they needed it,” he said.
If the government doesn’t act fast, he added, “people will fall ill on the streets and die.”