Rough sleeping is the most extreme and visible experience of poverty and injustice in the UK. So, a year ago, when the pandemic hit and people were advised to “stay home”, the vulnerability and visibility of people on the streets forced the government to roll out its Everyone In scheme. It showed what campaigners have long known to be true: that rough sleeping could be ended if there was a consistent political will.
Since then, the government has given the appearance of shifting its attitude towards rough sleeping. They proposed replacing the Vagrancy Act – which has criminalised both rough sleeping and begging since the early 19th century – with legislation that reflects the “compassionate society that this government is committed to as we build back better”. But the recent Queen’s speech failed to make good on this commitment. In fact, the speech neglected homelessness and the insecurity faced by private renters in favour of stoking a housebuilding boom, which will further exacerbate the housing and homelessness crisis.
Currently, the act means that people experiencing homelessness have been issued £1,000 fines and criminal records simply for having nowhere else to live, even during the pandemic. The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, who is responsible for the act’s review and any reform, has said that the government will assess “whether more appropriate legislation could be brought forward to preserve elements of the act that if removed, may otherwise hamper the ability of the police to deal with certain behaviours”. This is deeply worrying. We already have local council powers aimed at tackling “antisocial behaviour” – including putting up tents, street culture and begging – known as Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs); and they too are implemented to criminalise homelessness.
Recent legislation points in a similarly dangerous direction. Only last month, the government released new rules that make sleeping rough and begging grounds for the Home Office to deny or revoke foreign nationals’ right to remain. Earlier this year, Priti Patel’s overhaul revived shelved plans to deport foreign nationals who are sleeping rough. That programme, rather terrifyingly named the Rough Sleeping Support Service, should serve as a warning to all of the government’s willingness to co-opt the language of support, and the boundaries it is willing to establish around who should receive help.
Rough sleeping is only the tip of the iceberg that is Britain’s homelessness crisis,the majority of which still goes unseen. Hidden homelessness includes rough sleepers never officially counted by the ministry of housing, communities and local government but also people sofa-surfing, crammed into overcrowded private rentals without their own space, squatting, living in vehicles, starting new relationships or staying in abusive relationships to keep a roof over their heads.
The latest governmental homelessness and rough sleeping data signals that the pandemic has already increased hidden homelessness, and that it will get worse. Despite the eviction ban being in place until 31 May, evictions from private rentals – the primary cause of homelessness – are already on the rise illegally, as recent polling revealed. Come 1 June, evictions are expected to soar, and the new Renters’ Reform Coalition is calling for changes to the law to protect private renters who have built up arrears during the pandemic from homelessness.
Women’s homelessness is overwhelmingly “hidden” – from the city streets, but also the cultural imagination, policy and provision. Frontline charity workers warn that the long-term effects of the pandemic on women and their children have yet to be seen, but short-term effects are already dire. Domestic violence and relationship breakdowns are the leading causes of women’s homelessness and today we are facing a “shadow pandemic of domestic violence”. Research by Women’s Aid found that women simultaneously experienced more severe abuse during the UK lockdowns and struggled to access refuges, partly due to rising demand, and social distancing measures that reduced the number of beds available.
We are also seeing a “shecession”, with women furloughed and laid off at higher numbers than their male counterparts, which is exacerbating the existing gender housing-affordability gap. Combined Homelessness and Information Network reports show more women being counted on the streets than usual and, because we know that many women sleeping rough carefully hide themselves for safety, numbers will be higher.
We do not yet know what that replacement to the Vagrancy Act will look like and all signs point to this being neither the complete decriminalisation of rough sleeping we urgently need, nor a suitable Covid recovery solution to the homelessness crisis.
Any recovery ought to involve comprehensive action to counter inequality: building social housing and introducing long-term eviction prevention policies so that everyone can access long-term housing; regulating the private rental market so that it is affordable to all and that tenants’ rights are respected; minimum income guarantees; and strengthening public services and the welfare system.
Most importantly, these cannot be seen as separate issues; housing, social work and domestic abuse need to be integrated at the policy and provision levels, especially if women in hidden homelessness situations are to be supported. Strengthening the welfare state, for example, would also help tackle today’s “shecession”, since women are over-represented in the public sector. In these ways, “building back better” should address the structural inequalities that have always led to homelessness and which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.