Behind closed doors: Britain's homeless crisis

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‘He closed his eyes and slept for 15 hours unbroken.’

That was the survival story of 38-year-old Paddy, a man who finally found shelter after being homeless since 1998. But not everyone is as lucky. Lockdown last year shook every norm we knew; from socialising with friends to grafting on our 9-5s, it felt as if the world was swept from under our feet. But what about those who never knew what normal was? According to the homeless charity Shelter, over a quarter of a million people in England were homeless and stuck living in temporary accommodation (TA) during the first stages of the pandemic - the highest it has ever been. Covid-19 put a microscope on our housing crisis; with support centres shut down momentarily, it didn’t take long to see how bad homelessness in Britain has really become. But this newfound exposure was just the very beginning.

It’s estimated that 280,000 people in England are homeless. This means that 1 in every 200 find themselves without a home. These statistics are concerning to say the least. Despite the overwhelming stereotype of a self-induced alcoholic sleeping on the streets, the charity Crisis has categorised homelessness into four types: rough, statutory, hidden and in temporary accommodation.

Accommodation isn’t available at the snap of a finger, either. As stated in Women’s Aid domestic violence report, it was estimated that 57.2% of refuge referrals were declined in 2020. Low capacity within accommodation is one reason, but being vulnerable and at ‘high risk’ is another. Homeless people that present themselves with a mental or physical disability are even more likely to be rejected due to cuts in funding. A Homeless org’s annual report from 2014 revealed that 91% of accommodation projects refused people who were seen to be too high a risk  - making the vulnerable more vulnerable than ever.

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Having a pillow to lay your head on at night, living in an insulated room, or tucking into a hot Sunday roast are things that many of us take for granted. As a young student, I never thought I’d experience being homeless. In the UK an estimated 121,000 young people asked the council for help with homelessness in 2019-2020. The reason this number is estimated, as young people’s charity Centrepoint state, is because many youths are amongst the ‘hidden homeless’, like myself. Being hidden means a person can’t be taken into account by a national statistic or get the help they need.

It’s heart-breaking to think that teenagers as young as 16 have to worry about where they will stay the night. Being homeless forces teenagers to grow into adulthood much too soon. Some days it is manageable, and some days it’s easy to hit rock bottom. One wrong foot and you can spiral out of control, and be in a place you never thought you would. As reported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), homelessness can cause existing mental health and/or drug misuse problems amongst young people. Having a home isn’t just about having shelter, but that sense of security and warmth. There is a strong association between homelessness and withdrawing from education, employment or training. This is not to mention the disadvantages and added stress it puts on teenagers who are still in education.

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Despite the all-too-common ‘advice’ of ‘just go get a job!’, getting on the career ladder is a challenging process, and an opportunity that is frequently inaccessible. Many homeless people suffer with severe mental and physical disabilities, addiction, no employment history, no home address, criminal records:  the list goes on.  With Britain’s unemployment rate at an all-time high (5.0%), being homeless is a huge setback from having that financial security. In the cases where people get to the interview stage, being fully equipped for what may be required presents itself with its own issues. Smart, interview-appropriate clothing  isn’t viewed as essential, so are very rare to find in clothing parcels, and are expensive to buy with little to no income. The survival skills learnt through being homeless are invisible to employers. Instead, you’ll be asked questions on work experience, something difficult to obtain and prove with no documents.

We all face some struggle in our lives, and every homeless person has a story behind the reason they are so. That man sat on the corner of your road might not be a drug addict. What if he was evicted because of soaring rent prices? Statistics show that 1 in 5 households face homelessness due to being unable to pay rent.  What if he was an addict, but with a story you’d never imagine? What if he was in that environment his whole life? Being a homeless addict is much more than it seems. It’s one thing to suffer in the cold, but another to struggle mentally and alone. Addiction is a disease that affects 38% of homeless people, and if you’re a minority, much higher. It is unimaginable to think that self-expression or race could be the reason someone is homeless, but sadly, this is another ‘reason’ for many people’s homelessness. One quarter of young people who are facing homelessness in the UK identify as LGBTQ+. In Shelter’s 2020 report, it was shown that black people are more than three times likely to experience homelessness, and people who are BAME become homeless or threatened with homelessness every eight minutes.

When the lockdown slogan was ‘stay home, save lives’, it failed to acknowledge those that simply couldn’t. Safe, indoor buildings where homeless people could find refuge were closed due to fear of the virus spreading. Rather than staying home, being homeless in a pandemic meant people were moved several times before being settled. Lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) also meant the virus was more likely to be passed on amongst others. Foodbank closures and lack of donations resulted in many going to bed hungry, with children being hit the hardest. The Government’s appalling decision to cut free school meals during the holidays meant they could not even turn to school for help. Being homeless as a child is already difficult enough, but being homeless in a time when Wi-Fi, a social bubble and space to work indoors are essential, is even harder. With no immediate family or friends around, homeless people lacked social contact in a time where it was needed more than ever.

With restrictions starting to ease and June 21st marked on all our calendars, things are finally starting to look up. Covid-19’s exposure of homelessness has started to open the government’s eyes to our crisis. The Ministry of Housing released a statement stating that they have spent ‘over £700m this year and £750m next year on tackling homelessness and rough sleeping. We are also working with partners to learn any lessons from the pandemic and end rough sleeping for good’. With PPE now being readily available, job centres opening their doors, and finally being able to socialise again, it’s a lot easier to get the help and support. If lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that we should be compassionate now more than ever. Last year was hard on all of us, and helping someone who is less fortunate can make all the difference; that one helping hand can make someone believe there is light at the end of the tunnel and give them that beam of hope. Remember Paddy - you could be the hero in someone else’s survival story.

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