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Remember two years ago when the Tories decided to solve homelessness because we were all coughing too much? Was that real? Did I imagine it?

A woman sitting on an ostrich with bags that say "pando" and "lost hope" on them
Sean Morley

In the past two general elections, the Conservative Party manifesto contained a pledge to end homelessness. A curious stunt for a party whose modus operandi is to feed the poor into a cement mixer and use our bones to tarmac runways for their jets. More curious still is that two years ago, for a brief time, they nearly did.

In March 2020 a letter was sent to every local authority in the country, it said: we want you to house the homeless. Find everyone who is sleeping outdoors. Give them somewhere to stay. Give them food. Give them medical treatment. Give them support to find secure housing.

At the bottom it’s signed by Homelessness Minister and Ex-Farm Foods general manager Luke Hall, allegedly, because to me it says “L Ham”. The scheme, called Everyone In, was assembled by Baroness Louise Casey, who had previously invented ASBOs for Tony Blair. Though, listen to this, in hindsight, right, maybe she should’ve given him (Tony Blair) an ASBO (for the war in Iraq).

The coronavirus brought a massive uptick in homelessness, a million people lost their job that year, new isolation or care requirements stopped people from continuing or seeking work, families and relationships broke down, domestic abuse and those fleeing it increased nationwide. It was, imo, a Bad Time.

The Everyone In scheme provided an unprecedented safety net for literally the most vulnerable people you can think of. Put up in hotels and invited out of mildewed concrete doorways, in interviews, rough sleepers struggled to put words to the surreal overnight reversal of decades of apathy, lethal criminalisation and police abuse.

The issue of homelessness has been the eternal navel-gazing puzzle of the centrist think tanks, spending a decades turning it over like it’s a four-dimensional puzzle cube before sending off a white paper recommending the mandatory installation of card readers into the heads of rough sleepers. Columnists wondering aloud if doing The Hunger Games would be good for the economy.

Something as basic and humanising as access to privacy, a warm bed and a shower gave people their independence back, gave them the time and space and surfaces to do paperwork, and plan for the future.

This scheme was lifesaving. In other major European and American cities, Covid spread to approximately 40% of the homeless community, with a mortality rate of over 150% of the national average. By June 2020, the deaths amongst rough sleepers in England was 16. In Wales there were none, with the Welsh government showing fewer than 100 rough sleepers remained in the country and The Scottish government claiming fewer than 50.

One month later the wheels fell off. Or rather someone took the wheels off and later when questioned said “what is a wheel?”.

Funding For The Scheme was quietly diverted to pay for, amongst other things, Rishi Dishi Superman Sunak’s Eat Out To Help Out empire of £7 lunch-break cress sandwiches. So quietly did the government close the scheme that the government is being taken to court by an asylum seeker refused entry to emergency shelters while Everyone In was still being advertised and publicised by ministers.

In May 2020 a Ministry of Housing spokesperson said "It is simply wrong and misleading to suggest that we have stopped funding to keep rough sleepers off the street.”

In May 2021 councils were told as a condition of continued funding to tackle homelessness they would need to shut down all the special accommodation still running from the Everyone In scheme and cut any further housing support to asylum seekers, instead encouraging them to go to their “real home” of not-England.

According to Crisis UK it would have cost £282m to permanently rehouse those in Everyone In and continue to support emergency hotels and hostels for another year. For reference, that’s less than a third of the cost of Eat Out To Help Out.

Thousands of people sent back into doorways, sleeping bags and tent cities to prop up the high street retail landlords, selling floor space to franchisees to fill with unburnished wooden tables, selling deluxe cloudy lemonade to an intern who caught coronavirus on the train. Eating Out To Help who out? Am I helping the vacant-eyed staff at the Hard Rock Jacket Potato Laser Tag by paying a tenner them to fill a tattie with with monster energy drink and let me shoot it with a colt single action army revolver? Is it my job to buy junk so people can have jobs selling the junk to me? After all, I might not like the guy who keeps spitting on the floor at the indoor market, but I’ll buy his misspelled Bob Marley t-shirts and pornographic shoelaces if it helps him provide for his family. I don’t want to put people out of a job. If you don’t have a job you might become homeless, and we can’t look after homeless people… because we’ve spent all the money on Rishi Dishi Superman Sunak’s cress sandwich empire.

As much as it represented drastic positive change, this funding wasn't the product of empathy. I don’t believe the homeless community were seen by the government as anything more than vectors of infection, coughing dangerously near a brand manager as they power walk through an underpass.

Yet, the pandemic increasingly feels like it took place in a pocket dimension. As we return to our home planet the memory hole yawned behind us, wiping the brains of everyone with any connection to power or policy. Suddenly the solution to homelessness is now an impossible mind palace of zooming algebra, overheating supercomputers and sending fevered policy wonks to the brain asylum for upset tummies, a realm of far-reaching targets and committees tabling meetings to scroll through infinitely scrolling pdfs of before-and-after diagrams of a person inside and outside of a house with the word “How???” in larger messier fonts like if The Shining was set in an NGO.

But, for a brief moment in March 2020, the solution was clear because it was possible.

You have 48 hours. Give them somewhere to stay. Everyone In.

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