During the ‘first wave’ of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 90% of the people sleeping rough on the streets of England were offered accommodation, and an estimated 266 lives were saved.
Working on London’s pandemic response at the Healthy London Partnership, I have been blown away by what has been achieved in such difficult circumstances.
Adequate housing is a fundamental human right. Yet homelessness persists as one of the greatest global challenges, with around 1.6 billion people living in inadequate housing worldwide.
Living in London over the past 10 years, I have been struck by the stark inequalities in one of the wealthiest places on earth. I have witnessed an alarming rise in the number of people experiencing homelessness, who the Office for National Statistics estimate have an average age of death of just 45 years.
Despite the huge efforts of a number of voluntary and community organisations, an Act of Parliament in 2017, a Government strategy and a Mayoral Plan of Action in 2018, this complex problem has continued to grow.
A public health response
By the time the Prime Minister announced a national lockdown on 23rd March, it was clear that homeless people were at particular risk of catching the virus - particularly those in crowded shelters and/or medically vulnerable due to their underlying health conditions.
London’s significant homeless population clearly couldn’t follow the Government’s guidance to stay at home or to socially distance. Dr Al Story and Professor Andrew Hayward of University College London devised an inspired plan to protect them and prevent wider infection of the general public.
Remarkably, the Government decided to “bring everyone in” from the streets in England. Empty hotels previously used by tourists were booked and strict housing eligibility criteria were set aside.
This public health approach focused on meeting people’s needs rather than limiting public spending, by working flexibly and collaboratively rather than in traditional ways designed to restrict access to vital services.
There were six deaths of homeless people in London from COVID-19 by the end of June. Far lower than comparable global cities such as New York, where 86 homeless people had lost their lives by the end of May.
Formerly homeless people were not just protected from COVID-19, they were given the dignity of adequate accommodation, with access to health and support services. More than 2,000 people have already been able to move on from hotels into longer-term accommodation, where they can rebuild their lives.
A different world is possible
As we head into winter and a ‘second wave’, we are determined to continue protecting our most vulnerable citizens. The Government has announced some further support, making this more possible.
Did it really take a pandemic to (almost) end homelessness? Or could we have done it all along?
In an increasingly urbanised, interconnected and unequal world, we must ask ourselves what type of society we want to become. On the path to prosperity, we must build on our achievements and find radical new approaches to provide decent housing and opportunity for everyone in our societies.
Lewer, D., Braithwaite, I., Bullock, M., Eyre, M. T., White, P. J., Aldridge, R. W., Story, A., and Hayward, A. C. (2020) COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness in England: a modelling study. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30396-9.
Story, A. (2013) Slopes and cliffs in health inequalities: comparative morbidity of housed and homeless people: The Lancet. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62518-0.
United Nations General Assembly. (1948) Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25. Paris.
United Nations Human Settlements Programme. (2020) World Cities Report 2020. Nairobi.
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