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The homeless have been forgotten at the moment they need us most 

As the debate concerning whether having a takeaway coffee in hand means you’re out exercising or just socialising rages on, the harshening natural and political climate in which the homeless sleep rough seems to slip through the mainstream cracks – bar a few hard to find articles. 

Excluding those possessing some remarkable sense of wider society, the last year or so has been marred by a collective and quite understandable wealth of selfish thought for many regarding the pandemic. There is, however, a growing responsibility to cut some of that self-pity out and support those who are finding life a bit more difficult. Temperatures that edge towards freezing, along with a fierce battering of rain and snow provide the homeless with their most brutal time of year. Throwing a sometimes-deadly virus into the mix doesn’t do them any favours either. The important point is that coronavirus has hit rough sleepers on two fronts, one of which is shamefully ill known.

The first, the obvious part, is that the homeless are colder, hungrier and generally carry already burdened and weakened immune systems; they are affected more seriously by just about every disease and are much more likely to catch them too. The second, a collection of policies that have somehow managed to creep under the radar. 

Now, in the space of a few weeks the treatment of the homeless has weakened and reversed to a level below that of pre-pandemic life

I was surprised, a few weeks ago, to read that one night of sleeping rough had become legitimate grounds for deporting a foreign national; this type of policy seemed to provide a free hit to both Keir Starmer and the papers. The surprising aspect was that neither the leader of the opposition nor the papers – other than a brief article in the Guardian – seemed to throw any blows towards the government or kick up any sort of a fuss. This largely unscrutinised blunder has been criticised by charities such as Crisis who say it will make the homeless far less likely to appeal for the help that they need. On top of this, the ‘Everyone In’ scheme introduced in previous lockdowns to house the adversely affected rough sleepers has not been rebooted this lockdown. Surely, if ever there was a time to take support away from those outside it was not to be done in time with a downpour of freezing snow and rain – weather so bad that vaccines couldn’t be delivered throughout much of the UK this week. 

‘Everyone In’ began in the first lockdown. Ministers sent strict guidance to local authorities, making it clear that rough sleepers were to be provided with emergency accommodation and materials that would allow an upkeep of hygiene in line with government recommendation. The result: approximately 29,000 people helped into settled accommodation.

Through March, the scheme was incredibly broad, allowing previously ineligible candidates, specifically migrants, access to homeless support. So, the recent policy developments, some of which discourage homeless migrants from seeking that support, have been quite a shift. The government seemed to make a strong start regarding the homeless community during coronavirus; lots of support, and for all, not just a few. Now, in the space of a few weeks the treatment of the homeless has weakened and reversed to a level below that of pre-pandemic life.

The discontinuation of ‘Everyone In’ and the availability of wider homeless support feels a particularly inhumane sacrifice

The Home Office’s policy on homeless deportation became law on the 1st of January and arrived in a bundle of legislative changes marking the Brexit transition’s end. It just about sneaked through unnoticed, warranting no serious attempt at justifying its introduction other than a quick line by some anonymous Home Office spokesperson revealing that the rule would be used “sparingly”. The failure to reinstate and enforce another round of ‘Everyone In’ has caused an equally subtle and effectively unanswered stir. The lack of word from the government regarding the reason for its discontinuation gives no other option but to speculate. Assuming that the issue has not just been forgotten about, the most obvious answer would be that a tightly stretched budget has forced some difficult choices. 

During a crisis, it is inevitable that tough decisions have to be made. The discontinuation of ‘Everyone In’ and the availability of wider homeless support feels a particularly inhumane sacrifice. But there are forces in place to scrutinize the necessity of government sacrifice; the media and the opposition. This is where much of the disgruntlement should lie. There has been a shameful amount of coverage on the issue of scotch eggs as a substantial meal, on takeaway coffee and other issues of the kind. The government need to begin reinstating essential support schemes and this starts with the big-time journalists bashing away at their keyboards about something a bit more worthwhile, holding the hidden decisions up to the light for examination and ultimately forced reversal.  

“It can’t be right for people to be sleeping on the streets in the dead of winter during a pandemic, especially when support services relied on by rough sleepers cannot operate,” said Matt Downie, Crisis’ director of policy. And he’s right; on the homeless front the currently absent government must reappear, but so must the opposition and media.

In the meantime, be generous, and don’t forget to sanitise your pennies. 

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