Homelessness beyond criminalisation: Surviving in a global pandemic

Sharon Hartles critically reflects on the year 2020 and explores the shifting approach towards rough sleepers within an unprecedented global pandemic. Sharon Hartles was awarded an MA in Crime and Justice (with distinction) from The Open University and is a member of the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC). 

The year 2020 may be regarded as a year which many would rather forget, or remembered as an unprecedented year in which approximately 1.82 million+ people lost their lives to a global pandemic. Few remain untouched by the loss of loved ones, neighbours or members of their wider communities. During 2020 the initial voluntary compliance and the ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ message was replaced with the introduction of compulsory government tier lockdown restrictions which have ushered in 2021. Yet within this turbulent year the homeless have again found themselves the target of callous and ineffective policy measures.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

No one should be punished for being homeless or sleeping rough yet the past actions of government and local authorities made available into the public domain verify that punished they are. These vulnerable and marginalised people within society have already been targeted and ousted due to shifts in shared ideology, policy and practice. Such changing trends were executed in the wake of the 2007 – 2008 financial global crisis. Against this backdrop, the consequences of austerity policy shone a light on the punitive shift towards the criminalisation of homelessness. This accumulated through a number of harmful actions including: diminishing availability of services and hostels; welfare cuts and reforms; public space orders; stigmatising homelessness and resurrecting and implementing Dickensian vagrancy law. Then came the pandemic.

Nationally, the number of prosecution cases for begging under the Vagrancy Act 1824 over the past decade have generally steadily declined. However, even during a pandemic, which re-prioritised focus to one of social welfare; in England and Wales the action of begging still managed to be prosecuted and therefore criminalised on 1,422 occasions. The worst offenders with 311 prosecutions and representing 22% of the tally was West Yorkshire. They were closely followed by Merseyside who prosecuted 275 cases, equating to 19% for the period 2019/2020.   

Criminalising rough sleepers for begging by using a law which is nearly 200 years old needlessly exacerbates the vicious cycle of poverty. The only way to guarantee that the Vagrancy Act is not used in the future to target ‘at risk’ members of society, is to have it repealed. To this end, the second reading of the Vagrancy (Repeal) Bill 2019-21, is scheduled to go before Parliament in March 2021. In light of the global pandemic, focus should be directed away from punishing homelessness and instead be steered towards tackling the root causes and problems of the homeless epidemic.

The raw and devastating effects of Covid-19 are all too apparent, yet alongside the roller-coaster of emotions of fear, grief and thankfulness; for a while, there was a national sense of us all being in it together. In the spirit of togetherness, in March 2020 the Everyone In scheme was introduced. This scheme was initiated in response to the mounting concerns for the need to get the homeless off the streets and into self-contained accommodation. For this reason the ‘Everyone In’ provision provided local authorities with additional funding to cover the cost of accommodation arrangements. In practise this scheme had two-folding benefits because it protected the homeless from the virus and it also protected their wider communities. 

Image source: ITV News

In March 2020 the government announced it would be committing £643 million (over four years) in funding to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. This may seem like a substantial amount but when it is compared to the billions of pounds of public money which parliamentary members unlawfully handed out to inexperienced associates of ministers and advisers  through a secretive V.I.P Lane for Covid-19 contracts; maybe more could have been allocated to tackle the homeless crisis?

Despite this commitment, in an October 2020, press release from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government it was announced that 3,300 units of accommodation would be made available for rough sleepers. On the surface it seems like a considerable amount of units, however, when there are approximately 15,000 people in emergency accommodation there is a clear disparity between this inadequate supply gesture and the real-world demand needs.

In response to the Covid-19 crisis lessons could have been learnt from the Everyone In initiative. This response to dealing with rough sleeping, which all but ended rough sleeping overnight, in turn should have informed future policy and more importantly its implementation into practice. With little irony this has not been the case, instead ministers made the decision to stop the funding and “quietly pulled the plug“. Although demands were made to revive it in the form of the Everyone In 2.0, it was instead replaced in November 2020 by the Protect Programme. It was quickly brought to light that this programme was inadequate favouring some local authorities whilst leaving others short.

In a press release on 8th January 2021, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick announced that an additional £10 million in funding would be made available to councils in England. This extra support has been given to enable councils to redouble their efforts to accommodate rough sleepers and ensure they are registered with a GP. The government’s latest announcement merely reveals that the Protect Programme is not fit for purpose. Furthermore, this was not a proactive act on behalf of the government, instead it was a reactionary response to growing concerns from homeless charities including St Mungo’s who called upon the government to take action to support rough sleepers who were in real need. 

Even with this additional funding, under the Protect Programme some local authorities do not have surplus reserve funding to cover the deficit. Thus local authorities will bear the brunt for removing a provision which they had previously provided. In actual fact it is the government who should be held responsible and therefore held to account because the continuous reduction of funding as noted by the Local Government Association has had detrimental impacts at the local level:

‘By 2020, local authorities will have faced a reduction to core funding

from the Government of nearly £16 billion over the preceding decade.

That means that councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the Government

had provided to spend on local services in the last 8 years.’

Notwithstanding the withdrawal of funding, the government’s official data in no way reflects the reality of the rough sleeping crisis. According to the government’s official count 4,266 people bedded down outside overnight on a snapshot night in autumn 2019. Yet, in February 2020, a BBC report claimed that this count was significantly underestimated and the actual number of rough sleepers was closer to 28,000, which is five times higher than the official data. Here we can see how the official snapshot of 4,266 which was deemed to be a “good estimate” was at best misleading and at worst deplorable.

By its own admission, in a government press release in November 2020, it stated ‘by September it had supported over 29,000 vulnerable people, with two-thirds now moved into settled accommodation.’ In this sense the term ‘vulnerable people’ has been favoured instead of the term ‘rough sleepers’. What is interesting is that only 19,333 people have managed to be settled, thus leaving a total of 9,667 still rough sleeping. This amount is a 127% increase on the government’s official count of 4,266 as published in February 2020 by the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government.

By the end of 2020, the ‘all in it together’ rhetoric was a distant memory and calls on Government to Bring Everyone In again to ensure rough sleepers could stay safe during the new national lockdown fell on deaf ears. As a direct result, instead of rough sleepers being provided with self-contained accommodation, they now have to choose between the risk of contracting covid through sheltering in unsafe communal spaces or facing freezing temperatures whilst returning back to their roofless and homeless state.

2020 was the year which brought an end to rough sleeping, albeit not permanently. It saw rough sleepers’ allocated emergency accommodation including: hotels, bed and breakfasts and other temporary accommodation. Although more than a roof can be alleged to be needed to tackle the social and structural harms/violence suffered by homeless people, accommodation in the first instance for the vast majority can make a significant difference.

Indeed such an immediate and radical approach to this crisis raises the obvious question of why the government would remove a scheme which was working at the local level and replace it with one that does not work as effectively. Looking to the future, 2021 must be a year which focuses on challenging the reasons behind why the homeless have been left out in the cold, and why the homeless problem exists at all. With this in mind, the Protect Programme together with the government’s latest funding scheme are not fit replacements for the Everyone In scheme which was underpinned by an inclusive approach. Given the new strain of the coronavirus; re-instatement of national lockdowns and death rates on the rise again, it is essential now more than ever that vulnerable members of our society are not left to fall through the safety net.

To find out more about understanding homelessness or any of the wider key issues listed below visit: OpenLearn

  • The Homeless Problem
  • Being homeless
  • Impact of legislation
  • Lack of coordinated support
  • Criminalisation of homelessness
  • Homelessness and Incarceration
  • Slipping through the net
  • Getting off the streets


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