The government had instructed councils to house homeless people by late March to protect them from Covid-19.
Yet many waited weeks to receive any help and lots of people didn’t get any temporary housing at all.
And now even those who were temporarily housed could be turfed back onto the streets.
In Walthamstow, east London, around 23 homeless people are currently living at the old Parker Dairies Depot site in Wood Street.
The owner said people could stay until other accommodation was found.
But on 26 May Waltham Forest Council’s Planning Enforcement team sent a letter to the Rough Sleepers Project there.
It instructed the group to “cease the use of the land as a homeless shelter no later than Monday 1 June 2020”. Campaigners say there was no prior warning.
It said use of the land to house homeless people had “been found to be unacceptable,” but provided no details. East London Unite Community activist Richard told Socialist Worker, “The council tried to frighten people off the site with this threatening letter.
“This is about a heartless council evicting destitute rough sleepers.”
Homeless people across Britain will be facing a similar situation.
Richard said pressure should be put on councils but also the government. “I’m not a fan of how local authorities treat homeless people but this is a national crisis,” he said.
“The government previously said it’s going to do what it takes. So let’s see the colour of its money.”
The Tories’ Everyone In scheme was launched to fund temporary accommodation for homeless people during the coronavirus crisis. Yet funding is due to end this month.
And a decade of austerity mean many councils were already facing bankruptcy before the pandemic hit.
Tory housing minister Luke Hall suggested recently that street homeless people could live with family or friends.
“People were shocked,” said Richard. “Does the government really think people who are rough sleeping have a nice place they could just roll up to?”
He said the reality is that the government is trying to “reassert control” as the lockdown eases.
Homeless people will face a desperate situation if they are evicted from temporary accommodation. “During a Covid-19 era, they won’t get temporary jobs,” explained Richard. “They will have great difficulty reinstating any benefit claims and might have to wait weeks before getting any money.
“It’s harder to beg as there are fewer people around, and people are more cautious of interacting with strangers. Most of the shelters are closed and they will be less able to cope. If people didn’t have dependencies or mental illnesses before this, they certainly will have afterwards.”
Government and local council pass on the blame
The Parker Dairies project cleaned up a site that was empty for four years.
Ordinary people in Walthamstow have backed it.
Crowd-funding helped raise funds for facilities at the site.
A local Tandoori restaurant, a café and churches have donated food.
There isn’t so much support from the council, though.
Tory housing minister Luke Hall wrote to councils on 26 March.
He said rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless should be “supported into appropriate accommodation by the end of the week”.
It was 22 April by the time the Parker Dairies site was up and running.
When people raised concerns about homeless people on the streets, one council spokesperson appeared to blame homeless people themselves. “The homeless people seen around Leytonstone station have been offered support by outreach workers,” they said.
“Some of them are engaging at a slow pace, some have vulnerabilities and others have substance misuse.
“One rough sleeper refused to engage with the homeless services, substance misuse support, and has also committed several criminal offences.”
Richard pointed out that those staying at the site have all applied to be registered on the national scheme for street homeless.
People have shown they are “willing to comply with often inflexible scheme requirements”. These include being told to move elsewhere at short notice.
Of course many homeless people have addictions, mental health problems and other difficulties.
This is usually linked to being forced to endure dire living situations.
Painting homeless people as a problem and as beyond help lets those responsible for supporting them off the hook.
Migrants left in destitution
Many of those at the site are Eastern European. They face the “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) regulations and other measures.
If made homeless, they won’t have the right to claim benefits and will be at risk of destitution—or deportation.
Richard told Socialist Worker, “Some people have been advised to disappear. They’ve been warned that the Border Force may be coming round in the near future.”
NRPF is a racist immigration measure that bars around one million migrants from accessing benefits or social housing.
The government in March said that during the pandemic it would “utilise alternative powers and funding” to those with NRPF.
But the closure of the Everyone In scheme is due to disproportionately affect those with NRPF.
No return to a toxic normal
The St Mungo’s housing charity is pressuring the government to stop vulnerable people being thrown back onto the streets.
It said, “The government needs to guarantee no one will be forced out of their emergency accommodation without being offered suitable alternative housing.”
The charity wants the government to provide funding for councils and “to pay for housing for people with no recourse to public funds”.
It’s estimated that 15,000 people have been housed during the lockdown.
It’s not enough. But it’s proof that big changes can be made fast.