An average citizen reading the media might believe that the end of homelessness had either been achieved or was just around the corner, since the protections for COVID-19 were announced on 16 March.
First, the Mayor Of London Sadiq Khan announced that he was providing hotel rooms for the homeless. Then the following week, on 20 March, my 52nd birthday, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson said everyone would be housed at the end of the weekend.
These were headline events. Front page coverage. Very few questions were asked of how this was going to be achieved but, like the average British public, the homeless communities felt hopeful.
Although no government in the history of the United Kingdom, since the invention of land ownership when King William The Conqueror introduced the Doomsday Book in 1086, had been able to solve the problem of homelessness, this Government was going to be able to achieve it in a weekend.
The reality was far from what was being presented. Sadiq Khan’s homeless hotel initiative was a trial – it only involved 300 rooms, only related to homeless charities that the mayor’s office had a connection and then were only offered to those people homeless who were ‘known’ to those charities, which were very few.
Boris Johnson’s announcement was even more specious, as his was reliant on others doing the work and spending the money. His pronouncement, unlike Khan’s, didn’t even have the notion of hotel rooms behind it. He had offered the sum of £3.2 million to assist, but when you realise that for the PM just to send his letter to every household in the country advising them to stay inside cost nearly twice that at £5.7m, you can appreciate just how insignificant that sum truly was.
I’ve been homeless for over a decade. This was caused by an error that had been created by having another person’s debt attached to my credit file, which in turn decimated my credit score and prevented me from renewing my tenancy. I was living in my flat on the Southbank at the time, in what most would consider today a luxury apartment, with views over St. Paul’s, a terrace overlooking the London Eye and a swimming pool in the basement.
I’ve been through every government initiative to solve homelessness from Thames Reach Outreach to the No-Second-Night-Out hubs, from night shelters to homeless hostels and sleeping on night buses, to where I was finally was when the lockdown was triggered – Terminal 5, Heathrow Airport.
Over a hundred homeless people use Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport as their bedroom. It’s an important differentiate from living there, which many incorrectly term it. We don’t live there, we travel there to sleep and live, in the main, in Central London.
I became the voice in the press for what I coined on social media as the #HeathrowHomeless. We’d ridden the highs and the lows of announcements and then the lack of delivery. I was getting press coverage almost daily, campaigning to get us housed.
After weeks of uncertainty and without warning, a team consisting of a number of charities and a medical support team, who had literally been dragged together that morning, suddenly appeared at the airport offering hotels to those homeless. The organisation was chaotic, unplanned and left many people uneasy and floundering.
People were being shipped away to hotels in Croydon or the City, miles away from the local councils and their local networks, but they were the lucky ones. Most homeless on the streets couldn’t even find out how to get access to these precious hotel rooms.
In the first few weeks of lockdown I was genuinely positive, calls for a Universal Basic Income were being seriously bandied around. What the government had done in getting some of the homeless into hotel rooms were the first steps to the Housing First initiative – two things I’ve been screaming that the UK should have been doing for well over a decade.
However, now we are into our fifth week of lockdown that vision has been totally dispelled. The news is all focusing on the economy. There are hundreds of homeless still on the streets and more being added daily. Hotels and other establishments are evicting the homeless people they housed in emergency, as they are not getting the support they need for mental health or addiction problems and the hotels don’t have the skills or manpower to deal with them.
A mishmash of charities, local authorities, social enterprises, businesses and non-profits are holding things together, but when this all ends, there will be chaos unless someone takes overall responsibility.
The homeless were not removed from the streets for their safety but for the safety of the wider society they inhabited. For once they mattered. If the press do their job they’ll continue to matter, but the public are already forgetting as their voices diminish in the media.
What happens next is unknown so all any of us homeless can do, is hope.
Paul Atherton is a campaigning film-maker, playwright and artist. He lost his home in 2009 and has been homeless ever since. In the past two years he’s slept mainly at Heathrow Airport Terminal 5. He’s most well known as being the first producer/director to have had his film The Ballet Of Change: Piccadilly screened on the Coca-Cola Billboard in Piccadilly Circus.
His photographic exhibition Paul Atherton’s Greatest Londoner’s: A Little Kindness Goes A Long Way When You’re Homeless in the Gallery@Oxo on Southbank poised the question – if he has so many influential friends and can’t solve the problem of homelessness, what hope for those who don’t have such affiliations? (Feb 2020)
His first foray into playwriting Fifty Years of Trying, explores the insane bureaucracies and processes that prevented him for finding a residence over the past ten years. As he puts “it’s Kafka’s Trial for real”. This became the last production performed in the Camden People’s Theatre on 16th March 2020 before lockdown closed all theatres.
He currently resides in a Hotel Apartment in Westminster, which he was able to secure on his own behalf after challenging the council’s decision that he didn’t have a local connection with them by proving that he is listed on Westminster’s electoral register as homeless, as he had been for the preceding six years.
There is no indication of how long he’ll be there or what will happen once the lockdown is removed.
Image credit: Darren Fletcher Photography