Thousands sleepers in the street housed in hotels as part of the UK government’s strategy to control the spread of the coronavirus will be evolved as the locking restrictions relax. The ambition is for people to be moved to other accommodation, although the way in which this could be achieved for all remains uncertain.
Public health guidelines to “stay home and stay safe” to control the spread of the coronavirus have put sudden and urgent spotlight on the health implications of homelessness on the streets. In reply, the government has sought to provide emergency accommodation allowing people sleeping rough or sharing rooms in shelters to isolate themselves.
These efforts to bring in “everyone” have ensured rapid and remarkable reductions in restless sleep. This is an incredible achievement considering that the national figures have increased by 165% over the past decade, despite the government’s ambition to end sleep on the streets.
But some people refused to enter and others found deep isolation and the restriction of living in a hotel room. hard. My recently published research on people’s experiences with hostel accommodation can help us understand why.
The problem of homeless shelters
We know that living in emergency accommodation can have a negative impact on well-being, even when it is of good quality, but particular questions have arisen on one of the pillars of temporary accommodation: the homeless hostel, where the homeless live together in a gathering setting.
Public and political opinion will often swing towards the conversion of vacant buildings into hostel-type housing, especially in times of crisis. And we can see similarities in the recent use of vacant hotels in order to accommodate people sleeping in the street.
There are differences between hostels and hotels, in the design of the buildings, the staff and the social supports available. But the shared idea is that shelter is better than no shelter at all. Who wouldn’t want a roof over their head?
Still reality is that some people abandon hostels and hotels or refuse to “go inside”, choosing instead to sleep on the streets or squat down.
It is sometimes suggested that it is because people lead too chaotic lives or have too complex needs. Or that some people just prefer to sleep on the streets for some confusing and unfathomable reasons.
But these notions have been called into question. Evidence shows that when they have access to their own accommodation and are supported if they so choose, people who avoid or abandon shared accommodation are often able and willing to maintain a regular rental.
So what exactly is it that drives the avoidance and abandonment of youth hostels? Well, number one, insecurity is woven into their fabric. People can be excluded for periods, expelled without legal action or moved elsewhere.
This means that they must constantly be prepared for a move to permanent accommodation while also being prepared for a return to the streets. Such anxiety has recently played out on a collective scale in the fear that emergency hotel funding could suddenly be withdrawn for homeless people.
My latest research was a qualitative study that deeply explored the experiences of eight men living in Belfast, all of whom had a history of repeated use of hostel accommodation. It shows that people have tried to tolerate uncertainty.
“Of course, if you need a bed, you need a bed,” said Mark, one of the men I spoke to. And to be clear, people need a bed because they want to avoid the harms of sleeping on the streets.
Random violence, like the “bad, bad kick” that one of the other men, Sam, took “for no reason.” The creaking exhaustion Mark felt: “I’m exhausted. I’m screwed. I’m exhausted. I am. I always sleep on the street.
What Mark and Sam wanted was “a quiet life”, a life where they could “just sit back and relax”. But as they – and others – explained to me, hostel accommodation was often their only option.
Some had been exploited, victimized or threatened in homes. Hostel life has been repeatedly described as eliciting acute feelings of vulnerability, exposure and unease. “You’re always on your toes,” Kyle, another interviewee of mine, explained. “You are always, constantly, on your guard.”
Hostels vary widely. I found these feelings of unease to be more intolerable in wards where people did not have control over their own living space. When they had no choice of where to stay, who to stay with, and had little say in the rules and routines they had to follow.
Here, avoiding hostels altogether was a reasoned and rational response to intolerable stress, and an attempt which represented an attempt to prioritize well-being, especially when hostels posed more risk than sleeping on the streets.
Back to normal?
As hotels resume their usual activities and emergency arrangements for self-isolation are gradually reduced to finishThe concern is that we are seeing a return to sleep on the streets and the use of shelters or an increase in the number of places in hostels.
These concerns are valid. The government’s calls to bring in “everyone” have always been warned with the need to identify “dismantling methods for the future, including the reopening of shelter-type accommodation”.
The temptation is to argue for the benefits of hostels, hotels and the like, on the basis that they are better than no accommodation at all. But in the midst of this crisis, we somehow have to report on the experiences of those who avoid and abandon these forms of accommodation because they find them less tolerable than sleeping on the streets.
This phenomenon is not a puzzling and unfathomable event, or an anomaly motivated solely by an individual pathology. It is the result of a system that makes unsuitable housing acceptable.
Evidence shows that allowing rough sleepers to access their own fixed abode with access to support if they so choose works. If everyone is to be “introduced” for good, this must be our ambition.