“You must stay at home” Boris Johnson announced. “Please stay at home. This is a lockdown.” says Nicola Sturgeon.
But how do you stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic if you don’t have one?
We are concerned about two main groups of people: those in unsuitable temporary accommodation, and those who are sleeping rough.
Temporary accommodation is deemed ‘unsuitable’ if, among other things, there aren’t enough bedrooms, the household has to share washing facilities with others, or there aren’t cooking facilities. This is particularly important right now, as we’re all being instructed to avoid social contact and only interact with people in our household to help avoid spreading coronavirus. But how can you do this, if you need to share a toilet or shower with another household? How can you shop as infrequently as possible if you don’t have a cooker or a fridge?
At the moment, restrictions around the amount of time people can spend in ‘unsuitable’ temporary accommodation only apply to children and pregnant women. Anyone – not just households with children and pregnant women, but anyone – staying in unsuitable temporary accommodation in these unprecedented times will find it impossible to comply with the mandated government measures. This risks their own health, as well as other people’s.
Local and national government need to act urgently to move anyone in unsuitable temporary accommodation to somewhere where they can safely comply with government guidelines.
Last year, 49% of households who made a homeless application identified a support need. In these difficult times, it is very likely that people in temporary accommodation may need to be supported to access social security payments, foodbanks, and other essential services. Whilst still complying with government ‘lockdown’ regulations, we must make sure this support remains available.
On an average night in Scotland, it is estimated that around 700 people sleep rough. Many more stay in night shelters, at least one of which has had to close after a staff member and a service user tested positive for coronavirus. There has been a significant effort in the past few days to support people who have been sleeping rough to get off the streets, which is to be highly commended. Many have been moved into hotels, but hotels rarely have private cooking facilities which will cause significant problems during this lockdown period. We need to make sure everyone has access to accommodation where they can safely follow official government advice.
Also announced in the ‘lockdown’ measures was that “If you do not follow the rules, police will have the power to enforce them, including through fines”. This is a real concern for those who are on the streets because they are homeless. The criminalisation of homelessness and rough sleeping is a worrying trend: laws against “residing on public premises for habitation” already exist in Hungary, and Public Space Protection Orders have been proposed or introduced by various councils in England to criminalise homelessness over the past decade. While we have no doubt that this is not the purpose of the ‘lockdown’ policing rules, we want to see a firm commitment that those who are on the streets as a result of a lack of safe and secure accommodation will not be criminalised.
The reaction to these extraordinary times has been, in many areas, heartening, both on a local and national level. Communities rallying together, banks announcing loan amnesties, organisations offering their services for free. Let’s make sure that this reaction doesn’t forget people who are in extremely vulnerable situations in our communities.
If you need advice about a COVID-19 related housing issue, please visit our website shelterscotland.org/coronavirusadvice.