Homeless people in temporary accommodation were “already in lockdown” before the pandemic

One man hadn't left his house for six years.

Emma Mulholland is the Communications Coordinator for Justlife, a homeless charity supporting people living in temporary accommodation.

Last year, the government declared ‘Everyone In’ for the 14,610 people sleeping rough but we have heard very little about the 98,000 people already living in temporary accommodation.

Temporary accomodation is where people deemed vulnerable enough to be rehoused are placed while homeless, and waiting for local authorities to find them a new home. It can be hostels, B&Bs or sometimes a small place with a kitchen and bathroom.

It’s almost always overcrowded and often run-down. Residents are usually there at least a year and have been known to stay for decades if there’s nowhere permanent to move them on to.

A new report by Justlife Foundation reveals that many living in temporary accommodation were “more or less already in lockdown” before the pandemic hit, with almost half of research participants saying their lives hadn’t changed much at all.

While lockdown did cause interruptions by limiting access to support services, cancelling healthcare appointments and hindering contact with loved ones, our research group painted a picture of life without basic freedoms, regardless of COVID-19 restrictions.

“I self-isolate without this Covid thing going on anyway. Don’t make no difference to me,” said one.

Temporary accommodation is not a home

Although technically “housed” in the sense that they have a roof over their heads, temporary accommodation is far from a home. Our research group expressed frustration about the lack of control they had over most aspects of their lives, the insecurity of their tenures, and the living conditions they found themselves in.

One person compared their room to a prison cell: “It’s like a jail more than anything this hostel, the rooms are the same size as a cell. That’s what it is, like a jail.”

Others gave us a glimpse of how chaotic and unsanitary these environments can be through disturbing anecdotes about finding defecation outside of toilets, seeing vomit on the floor, and choosing to sleep outside to escape being bitten by bedbugs.

The lack of cleanliness in shared facilities is particularly unsettling during a pandemic and, combined with the overcrowded nature of most temporary accommodation, heightens the risk of exposure to the virus.

Disability among homeless populations is higher than the UK average

The prevalence of disability among those experiencing homelessness was one of the report’s most surprising findings, visible without even looking for it. Almost half spoke of living with a disability or some form of restrictive health condition, which, at 37%, is well above the national average of 21%.

We heard accounts of wheelchair bound people living up flights of stairs, which left them stuck in their accommodation for years, and unable to access showers on other floors.

One wheelchair user living on the first floor said: “My legs went bad about 6 years ago. I’ve not been out of the house for 6 years… I’ve been inside all the time.”

A lift would be life-changing for them, but we often find that local authorities, with so few options, are reliant on the private rented sector where the focus is on placing people in available beds, not meeting their needs.

What needs to change

Those living in temporary accommodation are often excluded from conversations around homelessness. Homelessness invokes images of rough sleeping, not of the thousands of households living hidden and forgotten in temporary housing.

Long-term stays in temporary accommodation can have a long lasting impact on the health and wellbeing of residents, and entrench them in unending cycles of homelessness.

So any goal of ending homelessness will not be successful if temporary accommodation is not included in national and local strategies to prevent and address homelessness.

Achieving this takes cross-sector collaboration between social services, private landlords, mental health services, drug and alcohol services, third sector organisations and healthcare providers. 

We need to see action from the government in acknowledging that homelessness is a major challenge for the country, that local authorities need more support to improve housing and look after people in temporary accommodation and, ultimately, we need more social housing or increased security in the private rented sector for people to have safe, secure and settled homes.

From our research, it is clear that while the virus itself could affect anyone, it doesn’t affect everyone equally. When something as momentous as a pandemic is just another ‘momentary hassle’ in a long series of hassles, it gives us a small window into what life in unsupported temporary accommodation is really like.

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