The Covid-19 pandemic puts people who are homeless at risk disproportionate risk – not only are they more likely to have underlying health issues, they are unable to follow the key recommendations –wash your hands regularly, stay at home and keep a ‘social distance’ from other people. In this blog post, Director of Advocacy Mike Allen outlines the challenges that people who are homeless face in following these recommendations.
When you work for a homeless organisation you think a lot about the meaning of “home”. And these days, working from home for a homeless organisation, each one of the new Covid-19 rules is a reminder that having a home is absolutely central to our well-being.
It started with rule one: “wash your hands’. In my home we have two bathrooms and a sink in the kitchen, beside each sink is a container of liquid soap, there are clean towels. There is always hot water. Conditions for people who are homeless vary, but none of them is designed to make regular hand washing easy; for many it is impossible. Families often share one hotel room, with a bathroom that must double up for a kitchen and laundry. In homeless hostels, bathrooms are shared by several people, and usually you are out on the street most of the day. If you are sleeping rough, the few day services which have showers closed in the first days of the crisis. Being unable to wash your hands is just one of the everyday consequences of not having a home.
Rule 2 says ‘stay socially distanced’ by at least 2 metres. My home has a garden, and I can also walk out along the sea when there is no one else around. I can stay at home, and cook and eat with my own family. My daughters have their own bedrooms. Over the last few years, although millions of euros have been spent opening homeless hostels with thousands of new beds, few of them have single rooms. The majority are shared and a significant number are still dormitories. You may be sharing a room with different people each night, a few feet away from them, breathing in the same air for 8 hours. In many ‘Hubs’ families share kitchens and bathroom facilities. You need to go out to get something to eat. Being in forced proximity to other people is one of the everyday consequences of not having a home, just as being able to close the door of your own room is one of the consequences of having a home.
And then, if we hadn’t grasped it yet, there came the clarity of rule 3. “Stay at home”, they said. At present, I share my home with my wife and two daughters and our dog. We feel the restrictions, but it is comfortable for us all to stay here. But in order to stay safe, and keep other people safe, ‘homeless people’ must do the one thing that you are labelled as unable to do. A country that knows it has 10,000 people who are homeless, tells all its people to ‘stay at home’.
In France, the police fine the homeless for not staying home and in the UK there are fears they may be arrested. Here, there is nothing like that. In fact, it is extraordinary how Irish communities have come together. Our crisis-ridden health system seems transformed as it faces this new crisis. And so too our crisis-ridden housing system – rooms have been rented (many from AirB&B landlords suddenly without tourist bookings) either to ‘cocoon’ the particularly vulnerable or to quarantine the unwell. Hostels that turned people out each day to fend for themselves now stay open all day and also provide food. We have glimpsed the extraordinary power that the modern state can deliver when it feels it must – the Government has banned evictions, frozen rents and taken private hospitals under its control. In Northern Ireland and in England, it took them only 3 weeks to achieve their 2025 target of ending rough sleeping.
You would have to be very cynical not to applaud the hard work and achievement of so many people in making these changes and helping people who are homeless. But you would have to be very forgiving not to wonder why – since it turns out that we have the resources and power to provide everyone with a place to keep their hands clean, to be able to shut their own front door and to a have somewhere they can call a home to stay in – then why didn’t do it before? And when Covid-19 emergency is all over, will we remember that we have the capacity to deal with that other emergency too?
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