“Every night, I’m here, in God Land,” Sabah laughs, folding down a cardboard box and laying his sleeping bag on top of it. “Things are changing now, though. Everyone’s talking about the virus. The first place it’s going to hit, it’s here, on the streets.”
Sabah is huddled in a doorway in central London, surrounded by four blue and red-chequered storage bags. He’s getting ready to bed down for the night after a trip to a food bank up the road, where we’ve met. Before settling in, he tucks into one of the seven curry boxes he managed to bag; he was the last in line, so he got all the leftovers, he tells me with a wink.
He’s been sleeping rough in the capital for over a decade and, at 81, Sabah’s got a long list of health complaints: hypertension, diabetes, an overactive thyroid – and this ankle that won’t stop giving him trouble. Probably arthritis, he thinks. But nothing’s more worrying than the looming threat of coronavirus.
“It’s only a matter of time before it reaches us,” he says. “When it does, it will spread like wildfire.”
For the homeless like Sabah, often living in unsanitary conditions, with limited access to hot water or soap, there’s little they can do to protect themselves. Face masks cost around £10 and the bottles of sanitiser gel in the underground stations are always empty.
“The good thing for us on the streets is we’re mobile!” he chuckles. “You’ve got to look at the good things in life.” He’s not alone – there’s seven in Sabah’s group now, all moving together and sleeping next to each other for security. But while there’s safety in numbers, there are also risks.
“We’re all over 65 – we’re old now – and we have no roof. Maybe this will happen to one of us…” So what will happen if one of the group gets it? “He can move! We’ll say ‘go over there!’”, he yells, gesturing down the street and bursting into laughter.
Splitting up the group may be the only way Sabah and his group can avoid the spread of the virus. There are currently estimated to be 4,266 people sleeping rough in England, according to the government’s latest figures. (These numbers are heavily disputed by campaigners, who say the figure could be up to double, at around 10,000. The charity Shelter says one household became homeless every four minutes in England last year.)
On Monday, the government announced a UK-wide, police-enforced lockdown that will restrict our movement to curb the spread of the virus. In the coming days, it is also expected to bring in extra powers for the police to detain anyone circulating who has symptoms of, or who tests positive for, COVID-19, leaving people like Sabah more exposed.
“I think the government’s forgotten about them,” Amrit Maan, a volunteer for homeless charity SWAT, which runs the food bank nearby, says. “Their plans are all about the elderly – but these are the people that are most susceptible, not just the over 70s. We need to get them inside – they can’t be out here.”
Every week, Amrit’s staff cook and provide curry boxes of lentils and rice for the homeless, delivering it alongside SWAT at their outreach sessions in central London. Over the last fortnight, they say they’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of people coming for a hot meal at the food bank.
“Usually we have around 150, 160 in the space of an hour,” says SWAT CEO Randeep S Lall. “Now it’s more like 220, even up to about 240 people.”
Tonight they’ve had to change their set up, too: collapsable tables to create distance, face masks, no hot drinks. A few people notice there’s no iced coffee in their brown paper bags: things are changing.
“We’re down to a skeleton staff now,” Randeep explains. “There’s usually 15, even 20 volunteers; tonight there’s only five. We’re not able to move around, check how they’re doing. We’ve really had to pare back our service.”
Maja, a lady at the food bank in her early 50s, said she’s noticed services for the homeless have become more limited.
“Lots of the day centres around here have shut down,” she explains, her voice muffled under her make-shift mask – a scarf wrapped around her face. “Some of them are brave and serve lunch boxes at the door – but most of them have gone already. They’ve had to tell people they can’t come in.”
The government’s current guidance is for support services to remain open until further notice – but she’s concerned that if that advice changes and food banks are forced to close, it will have an even greater impact on current levels of homelessness.
“You’re doubling up the risk. Without places like this, we’re going to be undernourished so no one will have the strength to fight the virus. We rely on this.”
Another concern among those sleeping rough around the food bank is that if the government changes its guidance, they’ll be the last to know; access to information is scarce. Sabah tells me he doesn’t have a mobile phone and he’ll need one to be able to dial 111 if he or any of his group starts feeling sick.
Sheltering near Sabah’s stoop is a young man with a wispy beard and a cossack hat. He arrived from Poland a few weeks ago – as the pandemic outbreak was reaching the UK. He approaches Sabah and asks whether he or any of his group know whether they’re going to be quarantined. There’s a lot of confusing messages, he says.
“Somebody told us they’re going to send us out of London. We don’t have any access to information – no internet, no news. Sometimes I go to the library, but we’re not told anything. How will we know?”
While food banks like this one are still able to operate, some hostels and shelters have been forced to refuse people support.
In the last week, five people have been turned away from Glass Door, a charity which provides shelter for around 170 people a night in London. One of those most vulnerable had recently spent time in northern Italy and, having been denied entry to a shelter, was forced to spend the night at King’s Cross station.
Lucy Abraham, CEO for Glass Door, says situations like this highlight the need for people to self-isolate with dignity.
“We urge the government to commit to testing for rough sleepers so that they can return to night shelters if they test negative for COVID-19,” she says. ‘We also call on the government to find suitable emergency accommodation for vulnerable individuals based on their need.”
Over the weekend, the government made 300 hotel rooms available to those rough sleeping as part of a trial. On Tuesday 17th March, it announced initial emergency funding of £3.2 million to help people to self-isolate during the coronavirus outbreak.
The funding will be available to all local authorities in England and will reimburse them for the cost of providing accommodation and services to those sleeping on the streets to help them self-isolate and to prevent the spread of the virus.
Charities say that while they welcome steps taken by the government, the measures don’t go far enough.
“Leaving each local council to decide how they respond is a piecemeal and insufficient approach,” Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of homeless charity Crisis, says. “What we really need is a coordinated plan from the national government to ensure people experiencing homelessness have immediate access to appropriate housing during this outbreak.”
But for Sabah, a national strategy isn’t his most pressing concern. He needs to be out of harm’s way, fast. “It’s hard to keep a distance from people when you’re on the streets. We want to protect ourselves, but we don’t know who is sick and who isn’t. We’re still human. We’re not dispensable. We want to survive.”