By Amy Freeman
Last week, the Big Walk 2020 raised an incredible £600,000 for the UK-based homelessness and housing charity, Shelter. I took part in the event myself, fuelled by a passion for social justice and a desire to drive meaningful change (along with a couple of Kit Kats and access to Studenteer’s Instagram account). On Saturday, I successfully strapped on my walking boots and stomped around a 10-kilometre route in approximately two hours. Overall, I managed to raise just over £100, thanks to the ongoing support and generosity of those around me, as well as spreading awareness of homelessness this Christmas to an Instagram audience of over 1000 followers.
“One thing is abundantly clear: homelessness during COVID-19 is simply not on the national agenda.”
Also last week, COVID-19 cases rose by 21.2% in England (ONS); the unemployment rate of people aged over 16 hit 4.9% across the UK (ONS); and temperatures continued to decline towards freezing. The UK government took the decision to place even more areas of the country into tighter Tier 3 restrictions, including London’s population of over 9 million people (Macrotrends), and senior politicians and scientific advisors, such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan, started to call for the previously promised five days of free movement over Christmas to be denied.
But the question that very little people in the press or in Parliament, or even behind closed doors and inside their homes, seem to be asking is this: what will happen to homeless people this Christmas?
Christmas in the UK is almost universally recognised as a national time for happiness, families, and a multitude of mince pies, whether you’re Christian or otherwise. It’s the one time a year where you can get away with drinking your body weight in Prosecco, watching the same feel-good film for the 25th time, and wishing Christmas cheer to people you barely even know. And, unfortunately, this year is going to be vastly different for all of us (and I am truly sorry that we can’t all go to the pub on Christmas Eve like we usually do, and bump into people we haven’t seen in years like we inevitably do). But for some reason, there seems to be a complete lack of understanding, awareness, and publicising of what it might possibly feel like to be homeless this Christmas during this pandemic. In short, this is a problem.
As someone who has never been homeless, I do not pertain to be able to speak on behalf of those who are or have been homeless. However, one thing is abundantly clear: homelessness during COVID-19 is simply not on the national agenda. And if you don’t believe me, just Google “homeless statistics 2020”. And what you’ll find is, quite frankly, not a lot.
The most recent government statistics on statutory homelessness were published on 29 October 2020, but actually relate to the period of April to June 2020. They cover the initial onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, the March-May national lockdown, and the impact of this on homelessness in the UK. Overall, the picture painted was far from pretty, with the number of households in temporary accommodation up by 14% compared to the same time last year, and 17.7 per 1000 households in London residing at the time in temporary accommodation. Neither the “Everyone In” scheme launched by local authorities to provide emergency accommodation to rough sleepers, nor the ban on private rented sector evictions implemented by Parliament, were able to prevent this harsh reality.
Since these figures were collected and eventually published, one need not be Einstein to realise that things are likely to have gotten even worse: just take a look at the far-reaching impact of the second lockdown on enterprise and individuals; at the reduction in furlough payments since the end of October; and the UK government’s refusal to issue free school meals during the half-term break to families in receipt of universal credit. However, the irony is that we simply won’t know this for sure until the next report is released, sometime in “Winter 2020-21” (gov.uk). Therefore, as we enter into our darkest and coldest season, we as a nation do not even know how many people are suffering from homelessness – not quite the “Winter Wonderland” we keep singing about, is it?
With this in mind, and without getting political, I urge you all to do something. Whether that’s donating funds to a charity supporting homelessness in your local area, taking time to research homeless issues this Christmas, sharing social media content from accounts such as Shelter or Crisis, or signing up to a project with one of our amazing charities, such as City Harvest, supporting homelessness, please just do something. Because, if we all do something, together we can help fight against homelessness and ensure that when we say, “Happy Christmas to one and all”, we really do mean it.
By Amy Freeman