Forgotten ones – the ambiguity of care in a homeless shelter during Covid-19

Photo: Johannes Lenhard

I spend an hour or so over lunch speaking with Pat. He’s been here many times, he tells me, over the years, but just returned three days ago. “I was sleeping in a graveyard with two buddies and the dog for the last three months. Somebody found me and asked me whether I wanted a place to stay. […] they offered me a place in these hotels or here, in the shelter. I wasn’t sure. […] then they explained: think about it down the line they’ll throw you out of the hotel but here, they’ll help, they won’t throw you out. So, I came back. It was a no-brainer.”

Pat profited from an initiative to provide emergency housing to homeless people the UK government quickly put in place when the lockdown was announced. Compared to other European countries, the UK’s response indeed goes beyond what could be expected (despite the budget concerns) and Pat is happy he has a roof over his head, now, and possibly for the longer term.

He has lost most of his teeth during the three decades on the street but still has all of his wit and humor. When he takes out his pills after lunch, he laughs at me: “They keep me alive […] I’d rather take them than not.” Up to 30 pills, Pat takes on a daily basis depending on how much he eats to deal with his diabetes, pancreas, mental health and heart issues. “But at least I don’t inject anymore – one substance less.”

Forgotten ones

In a recent essay, former US Labor Secretary Rob Reich points out four groups that he argues are specifically disadvantaged by Covid-19: remote workers, essential workers, the ‘unpaid’ (people being furloughed but not yet unemployed) and lastly ‘the forgotten ones’. This last category is not new for homeless people, a group I have worked with since 2012. Homeless people have a history of being marginalized across geographies; through structural forces of racialization, urban marginalization and the increasing impoverishment of the working class, homeless people and even more so are part of what Wacquant called ‘urban outcasts’. These groups have for a long time been subject to institutionalized misery in prison-like shelters or through hostile architecture in public space.

While at least many care and support structures have recently seen a major rethink towards a stronger focus on their residents, clients and visitors – despite often drastic budget cuts – during times of Covid-19, being at the edge of society takes on a different urgency. As Reich points out, the living situation of people in prisons, farmworker or immigrant camps as well as homeless people makes protection from Covid-19 almost impossible. The structures built to support homeless people with their lack of individual space and often communal living arrangements are not equipped to deal well with a pandemic.

Care homes (for elderly people) are already hit particularly hard in the UK both leading to a very high number of deaths but also incredible pressure on members of staff.  Physical distancing is very complicated in these facilities so that once the virus has come inside – often possibly through staff or volunteers – it can spread quickly. Homeless shelters and emergency accommodation could see a similarly threatening outbreak in the UK, something that has already begun in the US. So far, the government guidance page for homeless institutions remains empty. How to care for these people in dire need and how to continue to do so has been left to every institution individually.

Everyone’s responsibility

Changes have already arisen in the shelter I volunteer at – mostly in anticipation, to protect the residents. The questions are universal, however, and concern many different contexts of care, of vulnerable people: how can you support physical distancing when there are 20 people living, eating and watching TV together? Which rules are adequate and most importantly how can as many people as possible be protected?

Sam and I discuss this problem sitting around with our hot drinks in mid-April about three weeks after the lockdown started. Sam, a longer-term resident with both a methadone script and an ongoing heroin habit, explains that many rules have changed over the last four weeks but that really only last week, things were starting to get enforced. As a whiteboard right next to the entrance of the big common room announces, every resident is now only allowed two hours outside per day in a maximum of two outings. Sam knows that he might have been part of the issue when they first made up these rules: “I was going out all the time, mate. Sometimes 8h a day in the beginning, as many different times as I liked […] Sometimes I went out at 9pm, for 15 minutes. Not everyone let me do that but I always kept my word. […] But I overdid it and now I am better, I learnt.” In the last two weeks, to finally make people stick to the rules, several people (according to Sam, it was 7) were evicted from the hostel, for repeatedly staying out longer. Sam sounds almost scared when he goes on: “If they can throw out old K for being late half an hour or so, they can throw out anyone.” He believes that staff are much stricter now: “Now, they log us in the book when we go out and come back in.”

When one of the key workers, Len, comes into the lounge area to chat, we pick up the topic again and Sam is quite adamant to dispute the 2-hour-rule. “This is not government guidance. I saw it on television. I could – if I wanted – I could go out and run around the park all day, exercise is not limited to two hours. This is not right.” Len is very calm and considerate in his answer: “I’m not sure about government rules but it’s different here, isn’t it? We are all living together here – up to twenty residents and staff and volunteers. It is different with so many people living together, we are not a small family, right? So, you going out, that means you are putting everyone else in danger. If you catch it and bring it back in.” Sam gave in quickly; it seemed like the arguments Len brought forward really did make sense to him. Len ends the conversation on an even more thoughtful note: “We have different responsibilities now. Everyone does.”

What’s next?

And I find myself agreeing; the more time I spend with residents, staff and volunteers at this shelter in an English university-town, the more I sympathize with this idea of shared responsibility. While some of the rules were strict initially, adjustments have been made and a new balance seems to have formed now over a month into the lockdown. Obviously, some support – such as offering housing to people sleeping rough – is as much about protecting the more general public as it is about taking care of people on the streets; but it still benefits both sides, at least for now. Care at the moment is about finding a balance between individual needs and collective safety.

What I am more afraid of is what the new normal might look like. As I learnt from Pat above, most of the people that are housed now in hotel rooms and the like will likely be send back to the street once the government stops paying. This moment of solidarity proves how important taking care of everyone in society is as we in many usually unexpected ways depend on each other; I am unsure whether this solidarity and this insight will last, however.    


Johannes Lenhard

Johannes Lenhard is an ethnographer of inequality in the West currently based at the Max Planck Centre Cambridge for the Study of Ethics, the Economy and Social Change. Having worked towards a better understanding of survival practices of homeless people in London and Paris for his PhD, he has recently started two new research projects. While one is concerned with the impact of COVID-19 on homeless people and homeless support services, the other focuses on the ethics of venture capital investors with fieldwork in Germany and the US.

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