Stay at home? How coronavirus is impacting homeless people and homeless students

Patrick Mulrenan says that there has been considerable interest in those who won't stay at home during the COVID-19 crisis, but not enough is being done for those who can't.

Date: 15 April 2020

While the media has focussed on people who won’t follow the government’s advice to stay at home, it is worth considering a large group of people who can’t- homeless people. Sadly, this includes many homeless students.

The growth of homelessness in the UK (particularly in London) is well documented. In the last 10 years, the numbers of street homeless has risen 165 per cent. Chronic health problems are both a cause and consequence of living on the streets. Coronavirus is particularly dangerous to those with ‘underlying health conditions’, but this phrase hardly does justice to the level of well-being among street homeless people. Even before the current health crisis, the average lifespan for this group was 44 years. If you add staying at hostels with shared facilities- a petri dish for spreading illness- propects look very poor for these individuals. It’s not that they won’t protect themselves- they can’t.

But there is a far larger group of homeless people, one which includes university students. These are people who have been accepted as homeless by local authorities, and are placed in bed and breakfast accommodation or in the private rented sector. The number of households in temporary accommodation has increased by 76 per cent in the last 10 years, and includes 127,000 children. The latest figures show that 7,000 of these households are in bed and breakfast accommodation, often with whole families sharing one or two rooms. For these people, it is not that they won’t maintain social distancing- they can’t.

Most homeless households are in self-contained accommodation in the private rented sector. This better than being in bed and breakfast, but these households face many challenges; for example, 24,000 households are placed outside their home borough. They may lack any links in the areas they are staying in, and may not benefit from local community and family support. Often the accommodation is poor quality, expensive and overcrowded.

Which brings us to homeless students. Previous research has indicated that there may be a significant issue of homelessness among university students.  These students face all of the challenges outlined above, plus the pressure of academic study. Almost half of households in temporary accommodation are lone parents, so many of these homeless students are trying to complete their assessments on with children at home.

The government has put into place measures to get people off the street and out of shared accommodation. But there is little discussion about what happens after the emergency. Will we return to an even worse homelessness situation? Many people are unable to pay rent and mortgages and may fall into homelessness. We can invest in new affordable housing for those who need it; unfortunately, there is little evidence in the last few decades that we will.


Patrick Mulrenan