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Coronavirus: Rough sleepers must be protected, not made into pariahs

If the homeless are not provided a means to self-isolate or stay clean they are at the highest of risks — this must be the end of the road for government inaction, writes Andrew Fraser.

So finally we have a solution to homelessness across the capitalist world.


Exactly how, Prime Minister, are we meant to wash our hands regularly, when we don’t have access to a sink and soap?

How do we “self isolate”, when we have no door to close?

How are we meant to work from home, when there IS no home?

Who will be there for us, when the public demonises us even more than already, for being ‘dirty’?

What will become of us when frontline staff, previously helpful passers-by and volunteers, swerve us because they think we are diseased. What will happen when hospitals reject us and send us back to the streets to die?

Just when we thought we couldn’t be any more unloved, this comes along to confirm our pariah status. Yet more evidence that those without a home are bottom of every priority list.

While the Chancellor promises suitcases full of cash to keep businesses afloat and the Prime Minister demurs in following our neighbours by closing bars, restaurants and shops, it’s clear to us all that profits take precedence over lives … But that’s hardly news after the slow, sly genocide that was austerity. Now officially over. Well it can afford to be, there’s a new way of killing those who are a drain on resources.

And while they mouth mealy words about prioritising the vulnerable, all the while knowing that their own desecration of our health services over the last ten years means doctors are soon going to be choosing who lives and dies — and the elderly and long term sick, will be cost saving cannon fodder — our homeless don’t yet merit a mention.

Save for one unlikely intervention. Homeless night shelters are gonna be allowed to stay open. Such largesse. The government is happy to see, in many cases, 20 rough sleepers packed under one roof, night after night, in the equivalent of human petri-dishes. Quelle surprise. Every cloud and all …

This crisis offers us proof, as if it were needed, that homelessness and poverty is not just the result of greed among society’s winners. If it was just about the money, they’d be doing something about it, because poverty is actually really expensive. National debt exploded under austerity. No, the persecution of the weakest has been deliberately engineered by capitalist society because it keeps people down and serves as a warning to those who dare countenance stepping off the treadmill and stepping out of line.

And yet and yet … the crisis also offers us a way out of this constant cycle of subjugation, degradation and humiliation. It offers us a simple cure to the rough sleeping pandemic which swept the world from the end of the 20th century and cost countless (because they couldn’t be arsed counting them) lives. Incubated in Britain by Margaret Thatcher as she crushed the unions and sold off the public housing sector to property speculators. Even better, the solution is market friendly — making the fact that they are reluctant to take it, an omission that shows they really quite enjoy seeing the little people, the feckless, unwashed and unwell, suffer.

Caroline Bernard of Homeless Link revealed: “Section 189 of the Housing Act sets out that in an emergency situation such as a flood or a disaster, people who are homeless can be housed — and we think this is one of those situations where there is a clear emergency — people need to be brought in off the streets quickly.”

But how? There’s no homes right? Well, even ignoring the piles of second homes and empty properties bought up by oligarchs and property speculators … the country is currently awash with empty beds, thanks to the crash in the travel market.

Homelessness was never so reckless and unnecessary. London’s Museum of Homelessness and Streets Kitchen, based in Islington, have been prominent in stating the blindingly obvious. Funds must be found to take every single person off the streets and put them into a safe and clean room of their own. Not left in hostels which will become makeshift leper colonies.

Rough sleepers can sleep, avoid contagion, stay clean and self isolate if need be. Keeping them concentrated in certain properties would enable charities, health workers and case workers to look out for them and provide what they need on site. Streets Kitchen are asking for £500 million immediately from the government to facilitate this. That’s a big shot in the arm for the hospitality industry.

It wouldn’t be seamless, but it would be cheap and easy relative to many of the challenges we are currently facing, let alone fighting puzzling wars halfway across the globe. And it would save inestimable precious lives.

Update: A day after this article went online the government announced that it would indeed be seeking 45,000 rooms across the travel industry to accommodate homeless people.

In fact, if anything it’s TOO easy. That’s the sticking point. What happens when or if this crisis abates. Do we turf them all back out? Well as much as they’d like to, that might prove impossible at a time of national healing. More significantly, the notion that homelessness is just ‘one of those things’, that it was too big a problem to solve, or that they’d fix it ‘within ten years’, would be dealt a fatal blow. We’d fixed it already. Why go back?

If some crumbs of comfort are to come out of this, then get your voice heard demanding that your local councils, that your outsourced homelessness contractors open their wallets and make this a reality. They’ve presumably got funds stashed away for emergencies … And this is the biggest emergency of our lifetimes.

And make the point that if the government can lock people up for being out and about when they’re not meant to be, then Boris Johnson should be incarcerated when people are needlessly out on the streets when they don’t want to be.

If this really is a war, as they say it is, then that’s a war crime.

~ Andrew Fraser is author of Invisible: A Diary of Rough Sleeping in Britain

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