What’s it like to be homeless during a global pandemic? Everybody who is experiencing street homelessness is at extreme risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. They need immediate support in order to protect individual and public health and to be able to follow government guidance on social distancing, self-isolation and, in some cases, shielding protection.
The majority of people who the NACCOM network supports do not engage in ‘traditional’ patterns of rough sleeping, however. High instances of sofa surfing and rough sleeping ‘out of view’ place them at risk of contracting and of transmitting the Coronavirus. The only way to prevent this is by immediately accommodating all those who are rough sleeping or who are at risk of rough sleeping, regardless of their immigration status. You can read about our key policy asks in relation to the Coronavirus here.
Below, we hear from Fuad* (*not his real name), who cannot access public funds and has had his asylum claim refused, about his experience of homelessness during the pandemic.
I was homeless, moving between different places. Sometimes I sleep outside and sometimes at my friend’s house. It’s a very small house, the problem is, the wife of my friend was very terrible. She didn’t want me there, she tells me I make noise and I should go outside. She follows me into the toilet, she demanded to know who speak with me, she embarrassed me a lot. She wants me to clean [the house] every day and tells me I can only go to the house at certain times. I have no freedom when I stay there. It’s like abuse, I don’t refuse, but I try to go out to local charities to get space.
When Corona started my friend said I couldn’t stay anymore and the charities closed the centres.
Luckily, a charity helped me contact the council. The homelessness worker was kind, he asked me some questions about immigration status, but he said “Don’t worry, we will help everyone regardless this time, but in future you will need to have status to get help.”
I’m worried about contacting the Home Office, maybe it is a trap? But I have started an application for Section 4 because I want to try and use this quiet time to try and ask for help.
Now, though, everything happened so quickly and my worry is that all my things are scattered. My tent is in one place. I left my bag with all my important documents in a shop. Now the shop has closed and the man has disappeared. I don’t know where he lives. I can’t proceed with my applications to the Home Office.
Why is it that it takes until Coronavirus for people like me are remembered and to be given a place to stay? Why should we wait for corona? Now, it’s almost like we are we are praying for corona to continue, because at least now I have a safe place to stay.”
Fuad was given a Local Authority funded hotel room at the beginning of April 2020. He now has a self-contained room with a toilet and a meal delivered by a charity partner in the evening. He does not receive any subsistence funding from the Local Authority and cannot access mainstream benefits. He feels safe in his new room and can use the WIFI to access support services, but there is no breakfast or lunch provided. He is being given £40 per month by a local charity, which he must use to pay for these expenses.
People who are destitute because of immigration restrictions often experience street homelessness and rough sleeping. In 2018-19, 56% of the people whose situation was known before accessing NACCOM network were street homeless. The remaining people were at immediate risk of street homelessness, whilst 5% of people had just been discharged from NHS care.
For people supported by NACCOM members, experiences of street homelessness are shaped by restrictions on accessing mainstream support, inability to access healthcare, experiences of racial harassment and limited English communication. These factors result in varied and hidden experiences of street homelessness and rough sleeping.
As of 09/04/2020, all NACCOM hosting projects have stopped taking new referrals, all Night Shelters have ceased operations and housing projects are at capacity. It is clear that the voluntary sector cannot support the needs of this population alone and that people will be left street homeless without support from local authorities.
Whilst many people self-report as ‘sofa surfing’, they are reliant on last minute offers of friends (typically different people each night), mixed with sleeping outside when they are unable to find a place to stay for the night. Despite regularly sleeping outside, very few clients will be found sleeping in the same spots on the street and may not previously engaged with rough sleeping outreach services. Prior to the pandemic some people previously stayed with acquaintances in NASS accommodation, but this violates the terms of their friends housing and is no longer possible due to government regulations and guidance. Moving between multiple sites is a clear risk to wider public health and makes it impossible for individuals to follow COVID-19 health guidelines.
People who sleep outside will often use abandoned buildings and will move regularly. People report that they often face racial harassment from other rough sleepers or the public and so do not use spaces visited by outreach teams. Many clients stay awake during the night, walking or using night buses and then use day centres as spaces to sleep during the day. These centres are now closed due to COVID-19.
NACCOM, alongside other organisations in the sector, has been campaigning for urgent support measures to be put in place to enable those with NRPF and insecure migration status who are rough sleeping to be protected during the Coronavirus. To view NACCOM’s key policy asks in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic click here.