Let me take you inside a homelessness hostel so that you can see how exposed homeless people are to any virus:
In recent days, I’ve talked at length with Marsha, a homeless 30-year-old Newham woman who lives with her 6-year-old daughter in a Newham homelessness hostel called Brimstone House. I’ve written about Marsha’s living conditions and housing problems many times in the last year.
Marsha’s housing situation was a disaster long before coronavirus came into the picture. In the hostel, Marsha and her daughter live in one small room together. There’s no bedroom. There’s just one room. All their belongings are piled up in that one room. They share a bed. They can’t open their main window without a key, which they must request. The two have lived in this tiny space for nearly 3 years.
Needless to say, isolation is not a starter in this type of arrangement. People actually laugh when you mention it. However – spreading bacteria and viruses IS a starter, to say the very least. Marsha says that last week, her little girl – who has asthma – had a cold. There was no escaping that for Marsha (who also has asthma) – not least because she and her daughter sleep in one bed together on the same mattress:
“You know how kids are – they cough and they don’t put their hands over their mouth…a few times she coughed and I was like, “oh my god.” I just kind of got used to it… there’s no way of escaping it.”
Great, isn’t it? Doubtless there are Tories around who think that Marsha should just learn to hold her breath. My personal view is that high-ranking party members should trade places with Marsha. Boris Johnson should be forced to see out his coronavirus isolation in one of these rooms with Matt Hancock and a few other colleagues who haven’t got covid-19 yet – Thérèse Coffey comes to mind, as does Iain Duncan Smith, who should be made to stay for the entire length of a 6 month lockdown. It is high time that these people went shoulder to shoulder with reality. These hostel rooms drive people out of their minds, even without a killer virus in the mix. With a killer virus in the mix, everyone goes down.
The truth is that there’s no way to escape ANYONE in places like Brimstone House. Several hundred people can live in this building in the cramped rooms (the figures quoted are usually around 210 “units” (flats) with 2 or more people in each tiny flat). Germs don’t have to work to get around. Literally the only way to isolate is to stick your head in a bag. If one building occupant gets so much as a sniffle, everyone gets it – even in so-called good times.
As for ventilation – do me a favour. There’s no fresh air in here. Stairwells are narrow. Corridors are small. There were, post-Grenfell, fire wardens everywhere (they may have gone, although I presume the fire risk hasn’t). Some of the “flats” in the building are really just closed-off corridors: a tiny kitchen at one end, a bed at the other and belongings piled along the walls in between. Here are pictures I took last year of another room in the hostel:
Meanwhile – the scandal of empty flats
Like many Brimstone House residents, Marsha wants Newham council to move her into one of the empty flats on the Carpenters estate. The Carpenters estate flats are empty because residents were moved out of social housing flats on the Carpenters estate to make way for a student campus project that hit the skids. I won’t bore you with the details of that shambles here: it’s just another of a thousand stories about a failed council attempt to cash in with private developers. Carpenters estate flats remained empty, though, as Newham looked for another development partner. The chances of finding such a partner now must be about five-eighths of the proverbial.
Marsha’s only other housing alternative, I guess, is to find a private let somewhere out of London miles away from her mother (who needs help in isolation) and to somehow move to it during lockdown. Going into a private let was Marsha’s only option before coronavirus. Unfortunately, that was a rotten option even then. People in Marsha’s situation have long been reluctant to move to private flats away from their families and support, because they needed to be near parents for free childcare so that they could study and work, and because they could so easily be evicted by private landlords and made homeless again. Now, they need to be near parents to shop for them. Other people have recently been moved into the Carpenters estate, though. Marsha needs to be moved into a flat there as well. Stat.
This topic of half-abandoned council estates such as the Carpenters interests me. It makes you wonder how many boarded-up council estates lie empty across the country – estates that councils emptied for development as private residential and business projects that never happened. God knows I’ve seen boarded-up places across the country in the last ten years. Every council I saw was throwing around plans to turn council estates into commercial-and-private-flat enterprises. This always involved chucking out council tenants first (“decanting” is the word councils use).
Meanwhile, homeless people must carry on in a deadly epidemic, crammed into hostels in their hundreds.
So. Self-isolation from coronavirus is a matter of privilege. You can do it if you have space. If you don’t, I guess you just try and duck.
Update and questions
1) Has anyone seen or heard any more of the government’s proposed plan to safeguard the homeless? It was mentioned in this Guardian article on Saturday 21 March. The article said that some sort of strategy was to be released on Monday 23 March. I’ve been looking since then and can’t see such a thing. This talk of a plan may have just referred to the then-announced proposal to bring hotels into use to house street homeless people. There are other possibilities. I missed the release of something larger. Another explanations is that the whole approach to homeless people during this outbreak is one of those “strategies” that is released bit by bit in knee-jerk format as government flails from one disaster to another (homelessness being a disaster the Tories created, let’s not forget, with benefit caps, growing LHA rent shortfalls, the bedroom tax, Universal Credit delays, hostel closures and other genius aspects of welfare reform). The other option is that no further plans to support homeless people exist.
2) Has government released further funding to councils to house all street homeless people as it insisted council do this weekend? From what I’ve seen and heard to date, extra funds allocated to councils so far will be used for council tax relief. I’ve been covering councils and homelessness for nigh on 10 years now and know for a fact that there’s no way councils could or would finance such an exercise. If the answer is to cram people into hotels and hostels such as the one I’ve described above, we still have a very big problem as far as isolation goes. Hotel accommodation for homeless people is a rotten option at the best of times, which these are not. Remember that there are no food storage (you might get a tiny fridge if you’re lucky) or cooking facilities in hotels, and that rooms are very small. None of that is ideal during a health crisis. People will have to constantly go out for food and medicines, or try and source those in some way.