Maybe we have a chance here to finally see off homelessness
Many on the frontline of our health and wider public services are still in the firefighting stage of the Covid-19 pandemic – rightly focussed on saving lives. But some are starting to think about what the landscape will look like after we come out the other side – what will the challenges be and will there be real change? National Director of the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru, Matt Dicks, argues that it provides an opportunity to consign homelessness to the history books.
Like many of you, I am caught up in some sort of surreal landscape where every day at around 5pm I hear, and profoundly understand, the human tragedy of this Covid-19 pandemic.
The numbers coming at us from the television screen providing us with the stark reality, only to turn our heads to look out of the window onto a bright, sunny spring vista – the surreal divide between our own isolation and the real human tragedy as tens of thousands lose their lives.
But the reflection that is consuming us all - evidenced through social media exchanges – is that there are some key fundamental truths emerging from our collective experience, that once this crisis is over we really must do much better:
- First, and fundamentally, our frontline health service and social care staff are heroes and that the number one priority after this is to ensure that the value we place in our nurses, carers, ambulance crews, paramedics, hospital cleaners and other auxiliary staff is reflected in both the funding we provide and also the amount they are paid – we cannot return to a political geography where the future of our NHS remains insecure and apolitical football to be passed between competing ideological teams;
- Second, that there is another army of essential frontline staff out there that we take for granted – our hospital cleaners, our bin collectors, our supermarket workers, our delivery drivers, our teachers, the wider public sector (and yes, including the civil servants and council employees implementing and running the response to Covid-19) – and in my role I have the privilege of seeing and hearing about those working in social housing who have worked around the clock to ensure that many of the most vulnerable in our communities have remained secure in their homes and provided with the support services they need to keep well and safe at home. They too must all be valued by wider society, and that must be demonstrated more profoundly by the esteem we hold them in and the reward they get; and
- Lastly, that in four weeks we have pretty much managed to house vast numbers of the people experiencing homelessness - whether people sleeping on the streets, or on a friends sofa, or those being released from prison with nowhere stable to go - it would be a travesty if at the end of all this, these people were allowed to slip through the net once more and return to the streets.
It is right that our current focus is on saving lives, and from a housing professional’s perspective that we, as a sector, are ensuring that people remain safe in their homes and that services continue to be provided as much as possible – particularly for people who may need extra support, such as older people.
But as BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis eloquently suggested recently, this virus is discriminatory – having a proportionally bigger effect on the poor and vulnerable.
This crisis gives us the opportunity to start thinking differently and perhaps more radically – my perception is that the wider public discourse is calling for that, particularly in term of the value it places on roles and sectors that perhaps didn’t get the recognition they deserved in normal times – we have taken them for granted!
The Welsh Government has, in my view, made an impressive start in dealing with the issues around housing that the crisis has created, working closely with housing associations, local authorities, private landlords and other housing organisations to ensure that the advice and resource is getting to the right place.
Many homeless people have been found accommodation to allow them to isolate. Advice has quickly been given to organisations providing housing with support to ensure they are equipped to help those with complex needs through the crisis. Decisions were quickly taken to protect tenants and reassure them that no evictions would take place during the crisis period – just a few of the issues that the housing sector and the Welsh Government have addressed in collaboration.
But it is clearly evident that a lack of affordable housing options for many created a crisis pinch point that those of us with secure and available housing couldn’t even begin to imagine – how can you isolate yourself from a worldwide pandemic without that basic of human rights, a place to call home?
At a fundamental level, CIH Cymru, along with partner organisations Shelter Cymru and Tai Pawb, believe that the case to fully incorporate the Right to Adequate Housing (as defined in the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ICESCR]) into Welsh law was compelling prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, given the housing crisis and the number of people experiencing homelessness.
And the Welsh Government has committed to incorporating elements of that right into the draft Local Government & Elections (Wales) Bill which is currently going through scrutiny in the Assembly.
This crisis is shining a light on many inadequacies within our society, not least the disconnect between the value we all say we put on the NHS and the amount of resource and funding that the brave souls on the frontline are given
But it must surely also shine a spotlight on the fact that we have the ability to house everyone in our communities if we want to – and that shouldn’t just be for the duration of a worldwide pandemic.
Radical changes will need to take place, not least an even bigger requirement post-Covid to increase the supply of social and affordable housing. That approach will need to be carved out in collaboration between housing associations, local authorities, volume housebuilders and Welsh Government.
But the starting point must surely now be that, like the NHS, the principle of a right to adequate housing for all should be hardwired into the soul of our society. We need to believe that it is a right and to ensure we act upon it.