During the lockdown, Britain’s government put thousands of homeless people in hotels. But soon the program will come to an end.
The tents of Kelvin, Christopher and Will: The fact that many stores are closed benefits them Photo: Daniel Zylbersztajn
With a broom, Kelvin sweeps the street corner opposite Charing Cross Hospital, once built for London’s poor. The poor in the shadow of the glittering theater world of London’s West End live here on the street. Kelvin, 42, Christopher Haddock, 63, and Will Freeman, in his mid-forties, live here in a community of tents – three of the last estimated 8,855 Londoners on the street.
The three are not hungry. There is even more food than usual, they confirm. Some London restaurants, currently closed to the public, are cooking for the homeless and needy instead. Daily food distribution already existed before. As long as the tourists stay away because of the Corona pandemic, the helpers have even taken over the whole upper part of Trafalgar Square.
In the tent community just five minutes from Trafalgar Square, Will Freeman, a black slim Brit in a Moschino T-shirt, tells us, "A year ago I was working in the banking sector with 45,000 pounds (50,000 euros) annual salary. My rent went up twice in a short period of time and that was more or less the beginning of my life on the street."
Is it dangerous at the moment, with the viral threat? "Yes, one buddy got it, his name is Darren," Kelvin reports. Christopher, on the other hand, thinks of something good: "That we don’t have to move as often because the stores are closed."
Hotel room as limited help
The worst part of the pandemic for these homeless is not the virus. It’s the drug addicts who live by pickpocketing, who now attack the homeless for lack of crowds. You have to be more careful now than usual, the three tell. For that reason alone, their tent community is important to them.
During the lockdown, the British government used an emergency fund to finance accommodation for homeless people in empty hotels. In England alone, 5,400 people were given temporary accommodation, 1,300 of them in London. But not Kelvin, Christopher and Will.
They have the lowest priority, Kevin explains: "We are single men. None of us do drugs or have mental health issues." In conversation, it turns out that both he and Christopher are not in the best of health, which means their neediness should actually be rated higher. But they want real homes, not shelters. "Homes are always full of junkies and deranged people, not for people like us," Kelvin says.
Christopher thinks little of the hotel room initiative. "I knew it was going to be temporary anyway. So why go through all the trouble with the zillion bureaucratic checks on my facts, like the authorities still don’t know me – they’ve been doing it for years and arguing about how to classify me."
The "homeless" category also includes people who are not living on the streets, but with acquaintances or relatives on the sofa or in a women’s shelter fleeing violence. According to the British Parliament, there were 280,000 such people in England alone last year, including 127,890 children in 62,280 families. Against them, Christopher, Kelvin and Will are "less needy."
More and more homeless in London
And now the question is whether those who have been temporarily housed in hotels will soon end up back on the streets. That’s because, as part of lifting the lockdown, responsibility for caring for the homeless is expected to revert to municipalities as it was before the pandemic.
The government believes municipalities can handle that from a Covid 19 special fund. Housing Minister Robert Jenrick is also counting "for a long-term solution" on a new state homelessness advisor appointed in February. But what will come of that is entirely unclear.
There is no shortage of proposals. London Mayor Sadiq Khan wants to spend 44 million euros to bring homeless shelters up to date in terms of Corona hygiene regulations, with individual toilets and showers. A new center to house homeless veterans is being built in East London. Negotiations are also reportedly underway with Airbnb and hotel providers* who are currently treading water.
Jon Sparkes, "Crisis" Campaign
"The emergency measures showed what is possible when there is political will"
Can all this be enough when the number of homeless people keeps rising? By the end of 2019, the numbers of Londoners living on the streets had increased by 25 percent compared to the previous year. The numbers are rising now, too, precisely because of the pandemic. Job losses, businesses going out of business, or even people refusing to take in those affected by a loss of housing due to fear of contagion are leading to new emergencies, say aid organizations.
Activists are calling for the problem to be addressed in a fundamental way. Jon Sparkes, director of the Crisis campaign, says, "The emergency response showed what’s possible when there’s political will."
Conservative MP Bob Blackman, co-chair of the Parliamentary Group on Homelessness, is calling for unconditional housing allocation along the lines of Denmark and Finland. "It’s about giving people who are sleeping on the streets housing first and only then assessing their needs."
Christopher, Will and Kelvin also like this idea. "Yeah, it would really help," Christopher says. "It’s always been those checks that have ended up leaving me on the street for six years."