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The government announced £12 million of additional cold winter funding to support rough sleepers on 13 October. This will be nowhere near enough.
Some will go to councils in England to provide further self-contained accommodation, and the rest will go to community groups to provide 'Covid-safe' night shelters. But it is actually less than the £13 million the Tories gave to cold winter projects last year.
The fall should be no surprise. Despite the rhetoric, spending on homeless services is down by over half a billion a year since 2008-09, according to St Mungo's and Homeless Link. This funding should be restored in full. Meanwhile, homelessness has soared.
And the toxic combination of rising unemployment, the end of the eviction ban, struggling public services, and insecure private rented housing is placing many more people at risk of homelessness this winter. Shelter estimated in July that 230,000 private renters were at risk of eviction when the ban lifted, because of arrears built up since the start of the pandemic.
With the right resources homelessness is preventable. The government's 'Everybody In' scheme was one of the few positive initiatives to emerge from lockdown.
Almost 15,000 homeless people were placed in emergency accommodation, often in empty hotels. This had a real impact in preventing the spread of the virus and saving lives. The timely response avoided 266 deaths during the first wave, as well as 21,092 infections, 1,164 hospital admissions, and 338 intensive care admissions, according to a recent study in the Lancet.
I see the effect of this in my own role as a homelessness worker in central London. However, the 'Everybody in' scheme is now ending.
People who are new to the street have nowhere to go, with limited accommodation options. The normal support network of day centres, advice services and food banks is struggling to operate under coronavirus.
Everyone should have the right to a decent, affordable home. There are over 200,000 empty properties in the UK, estimates the pressure group Action on Empty Homes.
The impact of coronavirus means that demand for hotel accommodation in cities is at a record low. An August study into hotel occupancy in London found an average of just 25%, with analyst STR reporting some as low as 10%.
As an immediate step, councils should requisition empty houses and hotels for homeless people. The government should declare that arrears accrued during the pandemic will be forgiven, with compensation to small landlords on the basis of proven need.
Combining these immediate measures with a programme for mass building of council housing, democratic rent controls, and full funding of homelessness services, we could properly tackle homelessness.
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Article dated 21 October 2020
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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