It has been sixteen long months for the world. Covid-19 has swept through the globe travelling almost as fast as the information technology that connects us today. For the first time in all of our shared histories, we have been able to witness an international crisis, happening in real time through the screens of our smartphones.
We sat in smug assurance in the beginning that "it's just China" won't get here, perpetually glued to our screens. Through them, we witnessed the relentless, indiscriminate and frightening speed at which this new and unknown threat to our people and economies spread. Ushering in a new age, one of fear, loss, uncertainty, financial insecurity, and possibly even the highlighting of the deep rifts and divisions that have seemed to become more visible in our society.
We have seen this health crisis in both economically strong and stable countries and impoverished one's alike. Deaths in the United Kingdom have tragically surpassed one hundred and twenty-eight thousand. Small businesses devastated, millions out of work, or availing of the furlough scheme. New universal credit claims are backlogged with waiting times of five weeks and often considerably more for payment of funds. The statistics are grim, the world has changed and our vocabularies have changed with it: R numbers, masks, variant cases, vaccines, curves and bubbles, these nomenclatures have become part and parcel of our daily lives.
As the world takes stock and tries to take a collective breath, counts its losses and some mourn its dead, the Government announced the reopening of the country and the abandonment of our last covid restrictions on July nineteenth. For good or for ill "Freedom day" has gone ahead unchanged, personally, we all may have mixed feelings about this, feelings of excitement, tinged with nervousness and caution. Some feel it's too soon, especially those who have lost loved ones to the virus, others feel that restrictions should be scrapped indefinitely. What does freedom day mean to us at the Archer Project, what does it mean to our homeless population, and what impact will it have on their lives? Perhaps we should begin by looking at what impact the pandemic has had on our rough sleeper population.
According to information from the homeless charity Crisis and the Governments own website, the "Everyone In scheme" was created to "ensure all rough sleepers and those with shared airspace in homeless accommodation are given safe harbour" and rightly so. The initiative led and coordinated by Dame Louise Casey and her colleagues was to see every rough sleeper housed in a hotel or emergency accommodation. Taking a public health approach, regardless of "eligibility criteria" and the sometimes complex and arbitrary rules by which individuals are judged to be entitled to homelessness assistance, or not. Barriers ordinarily have seen those with no recourse to housing benefit, and often the most vulnerable in society left to fall between the cracks. Concurrently to this scheme, a sum of additional funds was made available to local councils to facilitate these measures. Home office evictions from asylum accommodations were also suspended and local housing rates raised to the lower thirtieth percentile, this was to try and stem the tide of new homelessness applications.
On the ground, we have seen a concentrated and coordinated effort to get people inside during the lockdowns. Shelters, hotels, B&B accommodations, hostels and the like taking in and housing our vulnerable citizens in numbers not seen before. Our streets grew truly deserted and even our newly accommodated homeless citizens tried to keep their heads down. There were as there always seems to be, anomalies to the data surrounding homeless statistics. The illogical counting of only the current rough sleepers desperately skews the figures, as they count for the smallest numbers of homeless individuals and families. Most of the actual numbers uncounted by statisticians are made up of the hidden homeless, those in temporary or emergency accommodation or sofa surfing.
Even with this concentrated effort of "everyone in", deaths among the homeless population still increased by a third this year compared to last. What lessons could we take away from these facts? We have learned that the system, although deeply flawed and underfunded. Encumbered by myriad defects and petty bureaucratic inequalities, can, when the chips are down house large numbers of homeless and vulnerable adult's and families when we set too, with a concentrated effort and a public safety approach to the idea of a safe, secure place for all.
I think it is there that lies the greatest lesson to us all. I have lived experiences of homelessness, and one of the more difficult aspects in my experience was the invalidation of my humanity, I was, I found, quite simply invisible. When we took the "public health" approach, whose health was we approaching it from? We never seemed to take a public health approach before, when it was for the health of those most vulnerable and needy. How quick to change the direction we were when OUR health was at risk too.
As we try to move forward, I hope we will have learned valuable lessons from this long dark winter, about ourselves and society as a whole. As we cautiously step forward, peep above the parapet and begin to enjoy our freedoms again, we must be mindful that the return to our "new normal" does not return to those most disadvantaged and vulnerable and to their old ones.
Article by Chris Lynam