The coronavirus pandemic has rightly focused attention on the people in our society who are the most vulnerable and who need the most support. People who are street homeless – rough sleepers – are among the most vulnerable people. Although I work in a different field now, it was my privilege to spend just under a decade working in different ways to serve homeless people. I’ve seen first-hand how sleeping rough takes a heavy toll on morale and physical and mental health. And it’s important to remember that sleeping on the street is a last resort. Rough sleepers have often faced immense difficulties and traumas in their life prior to becoming homeless – the path to life on the street is itself awful.
People who are street homeless have a life expectancy of 42 years (women) or 44 years (men). This compares with 81 (women) or 76 (men) in the general population. In other words, when people sleep rough, on average they tragically live just over half as long as they otherwise would have, had they not slept on the street. Conservatively, over 5000 people slept rough in the UK at some point in 2019.
Recognising that rough sleepers are extremely vulnerable to coronavirus, the Government made an unprecedented decision at the end of March 2020. Luke Hall, the Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing announced a commitment to provide all rough sleepers in England with accommodation within 2 days. Along similar lines, the Welsh Government released funding for accommodating rough sleepers urgently. Reports on the precise numbers vary, but around 4000 rough sleepers have already been found accommodation.
This is remarkable, and rare ‘good news’ at this unprecedented time. But it is important that what is gained is not lost. Let’s call on the Government to recognise this opportunity to end rough sleeping once and for all. The Government has shown great leadership in getting rough sleepers into shelters in a short amount of time. Now is the time for the Government to follow that up and commit to provide safe, long-term accommodation for all rough sleepers across the UK: not only now but also after the pandemic. If rough sleeping is allowed to resume after the pandemic, this would be a calamity, and more lives will be lost.
Every human life is precious. Let’s remember the value of human lives, including those of rough sleepers.