The nature and impacts of the Covid 19 crisis is exposing deep underlying fragilities in our economic and social systems. At the same time, as evidenced in SURF’s series of special bulletins, many under resourced communities and their organisations have responded quickly and effectively to meeting local challenges. Policy makers are increasingly interested in how it might be possible to sustain raised levels of collaborative community action, in a way that could rebalance local regeneration power, resources and decision making.
SURF is using its community focused, cross sector role and networks to better inform those considerations. One aspect of SURF’s broader contribution to building back better is a series of articles here in the SURF Journal.
Jess Husbands is the Policy Advocacy Officer at Shelter Scotland, with a particular focus on homelessness and supporting vulnerable people.
Jessica Husband’s experience with Shelter, Scotland, has provided her with a broad view of the difficulties facing those without home security. She explains that it’s not only the officially homeless who are struggling to find somewhere to sleep safely.
Home Security: Raising the Alarm
It’s been 12 weeks now. How are you coping in lockdown?
Can I guess?
You miss your mum, you miss making casual plans with friends like it’s the most normal thing in the world, and you just want to spend a couple hours talking about nothing in the pub. Your home, where you used to breathe a sigh of relief stepping through the door after a long day at work, has become something of a prison. You’d do anything for a trip to a café, a museum, the cinema. You’ve started to resent the four walls of your sitting room.
But it’s still your sitting room. It’s still a home.
At Shelter Scotland, we’re working with people across the country, and particularly in cities, who are stuck in temporary accommodation during this pandemic. There’s been a huge effort from councils to get accommodation for people who had been rough sleeping or sofa surfing, and that is undeniably to be commended. But for many of those people, that accommodation is a room in a hotel, hostel, or B&B.
Think for a minute about how sick you are of your home right now. And then think what it would be like if, instead of the home where you feel safe and can relax and cook for yourself, you’re in an unfamiliar room with shared cooking and bathroom facilities, and no home comforts.
I’ve seen social media posts celebrating that coronavirus has “ended homelessness”. But make no mistake – while it’s unquestionably a better situation than being on the streets, particularly during a public health crisis, temporary accommodation isn’t a home. People staying in hostels and B&Bs have reported to us that they are unable to practice social distancing, and others are having to go out to beg in order to buy food. While begging, several of our clients have been fined under the new coronavirus legislation for being outside – despite the fact that the legislation explicitly doesn’t apply if the person is homeless.
But it’s not just people who are already homeless who are struggling. At Shelter Scotland, our advisers are supporting clients who were previously worried about not being able to pay rent in the future; now those worries have become a reality in the here and now. StepChange Debt Charity reports that, since the coronavirus outbreak began, an estimated £6.1bn of debt and arrears have accumulated by 4.1million people in the UK. Since the start of the pandemic, around 3 million people have applied for Universal Credit; around 5 times more than the number who applied in the same period last year. Many of those new claimants now need to try and make ends meet for 5 weeks before they’ll receive their first benefits payment, and in that time, rent arrears can build up. For all those people building up arrears, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Current government measures preventing eviction only last until the end of August, with no information on whether tenants with rent arrears will be at risk of eviction beyond that looming deadline.
Who is this affecting? Well, contrary to articles entitled “Coronavirus doesn’t discriminate” and calling the virus “a great leveller”, the data – as well as reports from Shelter Scotland’s housing advisors – shows that coronavirus is worsening the situation for people who were already struggling or otherwise marginalised.
Unfortunately, those most likely to be building up rent arrears are those who were already at a disadvantage prior to the pandemic: on average, private renters spend a considerably higher proportion of their income on their housing costs than homeowners. On top of this, renters are more likely to have their – already lower – income reduced by the coronavirus pandemic; a fifth have been furloughed or lost their jobs, compared to one in seven who have mortgages.
A number of experts have predicted that women will be hit harder economically. Employment indicators from the crisis so far bear out these predictions: jobs held by women accounted for around 59% of the payroll decline in March 2020. Women are more likely to be single parents, who are over represented in precarious, low paid jobs with zero-hour contracts which cannot be carried out from home.
We also now know that BME people are more likely to bear the brunt of the pandemic; Data from England shows that they are between 1.5 and 1.9 times more likely to die from coronavirus itself. Due to a range of issues (higher poverty rates for ethnic minorities, higher rates of renting compared to home ownership, and BME people being more likely to be in precarious work or unemployed) the economic impacts of the pandemic are more likely to adversely impact ethnic minorities too.
Those with no recourse to public funds are also particularly at risk at this time. In the UK, most people who move here from abroad aren’t allowed to access the social security net in a time of crisis, despite having leave to remain and paying taxes like the rest of us. This is a situation that hundreds of thousands find themselves in, including at least 100,000 children. Many of them are also ineligible for housing assistance should they lose their home.
The official response to the pandemic and associated economic consequences has been lacking. While there’s been an impressive effort to get rough sleepers off the street and increases in emergency funds, responses from government have also included the lacklustre call for landlords to be ‘flexible’. But we have heard far too many stories from people privately renting that show the opposite. Furthermore, relying on this kind of good will from landlords is far from secure; even if a landlord has told their tenants that it’s fine to only pay half the rent, those same tenants would be in a tricky situation legally should the landlord change their mind. Of course, we’d hope that common sense would prevail in such a case, but this pandemic shows the importance of enforceable rights over good will and warm words.
Whilst many of us are sick of being stuck inside, this pandemic also makes clear the importance of a safe, secure and affordable home. One that allows us to thrive. And that goes hand in hand with an adequate social security system, ready to support each of us should the worst happen. If anything comes out of this period, I hope it is an increased understanding of the importance of the right to a home and the right to social security. These rights are enshrined in international human rights law but in the UK in 2020, we are still having to fight to ensure everyone can access them.
This is the second of several reviews of the way in which the COVID19 crisis is exacerbating inequalities. SURF’s unique position as Scotland’s regeneration forum allows us to access the views of frontline workers, academics, policymakers, politicians and those people living and working in the communities which are being hardest hit. Our intention is not to only record the damage that is being caused – or to rejoice in the innovative and collective creativity of those who have stepped up to meet the challenges. We also want to present ideas and processes which will encourage debate about how our many national and local partner organisations should support and sustain the most effective of these responses to collaboratively build back better.
Among the themes to be explored in future postings will be the Digital Divide, Urban Planning, Food Poverty, and particular impacts on different communities.
SURF welcomes all feedback and suggestions for future areas you would like to see covered. Please email Elaine Cooper at Elaine@surf-old.local.
 Shelter’s Edinburgh-based advisors noted that this was an issue throughout April and May for an increasing number of clients.