What the pandemic taught us about homelessness

Covid19 pandemic led to the reduction in the number of homeless people in many countries as it enabled governments to treat homelessness as a public health emergency to swiftly accommodate people.

During that time, there were two key fears when it came to homeless populations and the pandemic. The first fear was that those who couldn’t stay at home could spread the virus. The second was that those experiencing homelessness would be stigmatised as vectors of the disease and also get cut off from access to food, support and shelter.

By providing emergency accommodation in private rooms, and taking steps to prevent homelessness, governments helped alleviate these fears.

Below are some lessons the pandemic has taught us about homelessness

  1. Governments of the world can put an end to homelessness

 Putting an end to homelessness could be a realistic goal as the mixture of the proper political will and funds during the pandemic has shown us that street homelessness can be eliminated very quickly. An example is what happened in the UK.

 In the UK for a period, 40,000 people moved out of emergency accommodation into longer-term accommodation between March 2020 and November 2021.

The public health dire need to house those experiencing homelessness created a political imperative for radical action. Many governments furnished dedicated funding in the preliminary phase of the pandemic, vastly boosting the resources available to tackle the problem.

While not all gains were long-lasting, the fact that this took place at all tells us that the goal of putting a permanent end to homelessness is realistic.

  1. Cancelling eligibility criteria for a period helps

Curtailing homelessness also implies the removal of the barriers for people to get help. Governments oftentimes have distributed resources like housing support based on set criteria, like whether the individual is being supported by a family. However, the pandemic showed us that a more universal approach to offering housing or resources to every person in need – regardless of their specific circumstance works much better.

Before COVID19, the UK excluded a group of people from getting quick access to publicly sponsored accommodation based on their immigration status or for other justifications like “no recourse to public funds”. This meant some homeless people, many of which are sleeping rough or in shelters, had little chance of resolution. By removing this restriction on eligibility, those previously existing under the radar of local authorities were allowed access to housing and accommodation services and were accounted for the first time.

3. Eviction bans can be legalised

A Lot of countries also took steps to assist those at risk of becoming homeless by introducing eviction bans. These eviction bans protected tenants from being forced from their homes.

For instance, in Houston in the US, a programme which supports people at the point of eviction directed 2,895 individuals away from the risk of homelessness into alternative accommodation. Another separate rent relief programme funded tens of thousands more tenants at risk of becoming homeless. Together, these measures also enabled existing resources to be targeted at those who were without a home at the time.

While making a comprehensive eviction ban permanent is perhaps not possible, the pandemic shows it is a helpful tool in preventing new homelessness

4. Collaboration is key to ending homelessness

In the same way it took a consolidated effect to end Covid through carrying out social measures, getting tested with antigen covid and getting vaccinated, ending homelessness can’t be done by the government alone.

During the pandemic, the widespread shuttering of the leisure travel industry led to an accessible stock of private sector hotel rooms which were used to house people. This public-private cooperation enabled individuals to be housed in their rooms, which was also crucial in stopping the spread of COVID.

In London, health workers provided initial health screenings, while mental health professionals gave support to homeless people in the accommodation.

Making this kind of collaboration is necessary for a permanent end to homelessness.

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