Impact of social distancing when you’re already socially excluded

Stan Burridge is an ex-rough sleeper and an HSCWRU Peer-researcher. He is Director of Expert Focus, a user-led organisation that supports the involvement of people with lived experience in homelessness research and policy. Here, Stan talks to four ex-rough sleepers about their experiences of living through the Coronavirus pandemic. Names of participants have been changed. (1,825 words)

Like everyone one else, I have watched in fear as the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic has sent shockwaves around the world. In the middle of March, I saw the first glimpse of what appeared to be some good news. Hidden in a small paragraph, in the pages of a tabloid newspaper, a caption read, ‘Homeless people to be moved into hotels’. I questioned if this really could be true. Would every homeless person be given a bed, somewhere warm and a place to hide from the pandemic sweeping the nation? Unbelievably, it wasn’t fiction. When the action began it was swift. There were armies of voluntary sector workers lined up, ready for the task which lay ahead to ‘Test, Triage, Cohort and Treat’. Within days, most were moved from the street. But what is happening to people now they are gone from view? Is life all rosy or are there hidden problems which we are not thinking about, not taking care of? I spoke via telephone to four people with ‘lived experience’ of homelessness about their experiences of the impact of Coronavirus and social distancing. This is what they said.

Jane (living in temporary accommodation) Social distancing means that I am basically on my own all the time now. If I do go out it’s only once a week, maybe twice at a push, to get shopping and my medication. Even then, I am staying as far away from people as I possibly can. I am not talking to anyone when I am out unless I have to. The chemist asked me if I minded him signing my prescription because of the risk of catching the virus, all of the staff have face masks and gloves and there is a plastic screen by the counter. Getting stuff from the shops is getting better this week, but at one point because the supermarket didn’t have any toilet rolls I had to walk to another shop, this was a struggle as I am disabled. It was a worthless walk as they wanted £8.99 for two toilet rolls. How am I supposed to be able to pay those prices for ‘bog roll’ when all I get is benefits? I go out really early, about 6 or 7 in the morning so there is no-one else around. I live in a building with lots of bedsits, and I have to use the lift to get out of my building. If there is someone in the lift, I will wait, I won’t get in the lift with them. Luckily, I am on ‘happy pills’ from my doctor which help a bit, but it is draining, and yesterday I couldn’t even muster up the energy go out and get milk because I am getting more depressed each day. I am far away from anyone I know, feeling totally isolated and if I run out of credit on my phone I don’t know what I would do. I’ve got a key worker who is now on limited hours and when he comes to see me we talk through the closed door; he is on the outside in the corridor. I really trust him, but I can’t talk to him about how I am feeling at the moment because other people can hear, it’s not private. It is simple things like this which people forget. Even though I hate what is happening to me and being alone is really getting me down, it is better than sleeping on the streets again. I have seen a beggar – he had a sign asking people not to give him money but to buy him food. How are homeless people going to get fed if they haven’t got any money? I wonder what will happen to everyone who is now in a hotel; will they just get chucked out again, back to the street?

Anna (street homeless, ‘no recourse to public funds’) About three weeks ago I got some help from a small charity to get me off the streets and into a hotel. I had been unable to get much help prior to this because I can’t get benefits. The one place I could go to eat had banned me because I complained about the way they were talking to people and the fact that they only had one shower which meant that it was impossible to get clean. They called me a trouble-maker because I complained. That was about a year ago. I have had very little support since then. When the charity got me into the first hotel, it seemed great, the room was nice and I got breakfast, lunch and dinner, but when the local council took over the payments, things changed. They made me move to another hotel and now it is just a roof. The council say they are helping people, but I feel they are just hiding us away. People like me who don’t have any money and can’t get benefits are finding it really tough. The day centres are closed, I don’t have any money to shop and the ‘soup runs’ are getting less and less. It seems that as long as we can’t be seen, we are not a problem. I am worried about when I am going to eat next, but no one seems to know what is going on, and getting information is almost impossible.

Andy (The Big Issue seller) When people started to work from home my sales just dropped. I would sell a few papers and get a few tips every day but that stopped almost overnight. I struggled on for a bit, but in the end I had to give up and they closed the Big Issue anyway. When I was out there I never saw anyone looking like they’d got the virus and if I am honest, I kept telling myself, that maybe it isn’t that bad. Now I know it is, I feel a bit stupid as my health should have meant more. Truthfully, I was worried about catching the virus, but I have to make a living and at the end of the day the Big Issue is my living. It was a risk I had to take; I didn’t have much of a choice.

I am a recovering alcoholic, but I am clean at the moment. I still think about going out and getting a beer every day, and the reason I kept trying to sell the Big Issue was because I still have the addict’s mentality; I must make money. Being clean just means that I now look at other priorities. I still have to get out, so I walk down to the River Thames and read my book just to get out and have some exercise. Now I sit alone, and no one talks to me. When I was selling the Big Issue, lots of people spoke to me, not only those who bought the magazine. Lots of people would just say ‘good morning’ as they walked past, and being able to talk to people made things sort of OK. Now all I have are these four walls and my phone. I am on probation, and before I had a weekly meeting, but now I have to talk to them on the phone instead of going to their office, and the mental health team call me once a week too.

The toughest part of being made to stay in is that I cannot get to any Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (they have all stopped) so, I am struggling a bit. I spend all my benefits money as soon as I get it, making sure I have enough food and cigarettes to last, but no money left so I can’t buy drink. There’s no one around to sell old copies of the Big Issue to or beg from so I can’t make any money. That is the only way I am staying clean at the moment. I know I will have to survive on benefits until things go back to normal. The government said they were going to help people who are self-employed, but this won’t count for homeless people and Big Issue vendors because we don’t make enough to pay tax, and I am not in a position to get an accountant, so it’s the ‘rock and roll’ [slang for dole or benefits] for me. I think as soon as this Coronavirus is over the homeless will be back on the streets again and the Big Issue may not recover, so I don’t know what I’m going to do then.

Jim (living in temporary accommodation) ‘I have someone staying here, because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go, so it’s better than sleeping on the streets. We still go out and mix with the same circle of friends. I am not really worried about the virus because we were all mixing before they shut-down’.

Authors comments:

As I was speaking to Jim, I could hear voices and laughter in the background. Part of me was jealous as I live alone. I asked Jim if he was worried about catching the virus. He indicated that other things were more important like where to get food and how to make things last. Jim will not be alone in his ‘flexible’ approach to social distancing and lockdown. My own lasting positive memory of sleeping rough was the freedom of movement and the things going on around me which I could see. Although I couldn’t join in most of it, it was a bit like watching a birthday party through a window, at least I could see what was going on, I could hear the music, my mind stayed sort of sane, and I didn’t feel alone.

During my conversations I got the overwhelming feeling that homeless and ex-homeless people are struggling with the lockdown more than most. The vast majority of them haven’t got the same connections most people have, and they don’t have a network of family or friends to contact and bolster feelings. Support networks are now limited to telephone calls or brief conversations through closed doors. Some vital services such as Alcoholics Anonymous are now missing. Empty supermarket shelves and selfish shoppers struggling to cram half a rain forest of toilet roll into the back of a Chelsea tractor are indicative of just how able some of us are at ‘living well for less’ during social distancing, but when you have little or no money then hardship of surviving lockdown will be unimaginable to most.

Finally, it is important to ask what will happen when this is over? I hope we manage to hold on to some of the positives this has brought: NHS staff being applauded loudly, recognised for the gallant efforts they are making to stem the tide of the virus; shop staff being viewed as a vital service instead of low paid, unskilled workers and, importantly, homeless people off the streets and into somewhere safe.

Stan Burridge is an ex-rough sleeper and an HSCWRU Peer-researcher. He is Director of Expert Focus, a user-led organisation that supports the involvement of people with lived experience in homelessness research and policy.

See also:

Read the associated blog (7 April, 2020) by Bruno Ornelas and Fiona Bateman asking: What are the legal implications of placing people who are homeless in hotels during the pandemic?

Editor’s note:

The closure of day centres mentioned in this blog is being explored by researchers at King’s College London in the context of (hopefully temporarily) day centre closures in south London. Please contact Katharine Orellana or Caroline Green if, as a staff member, volunteer or day centre attendee in south London, you would like to tell us of your experiences of these changes. (This is part of work the NIHR Policy Research Unit in Health and Social Care Workforce is doing within the social care research theme of the South London Applied Research Collaboration.)