Our forgotten victims of Coronavirus
By Olivia Otigbah
Recently, the government told councils to house all rough sleepers in England 'by the weekend', to halt the spread of Coronavirus, to praise from the homeless charities. I do not know if Scotland has followed.
I walked around Edinburgh and saw the peculiar vulnerability of the street homeless to infection and death. In normal times the average life expectancy for a homeless man is 47; for women it is 43. Edinburgh has the second-highest rate of homelessness in Scotland.
An estimated 3,229 people need permanent housing in Edinburgh alone. According to Homeless.org data, 45% of 2,590 surveyed had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, compared to 25% of the general public. 61% have used they’ve used hospital services within the last six months. 39% are recovering from drug addiction and 27% are recovering from alcoholism; a majority have underlying conditions.
Graham McDonald, 44, sat quietly in the shade, waiting for donations which had tapered off in the near empty streets.
“I’ll have to find a B&B tonight,” he said, “but the only open ones are around £80 a night. How am I meant to find £80 when the streets are like ghost towns?”
“I’m just scared of catching it because when you live on the street, your immune system’s knackered. I’m waiting for a valve replacement on my heart the last thing I want to do is catch that.”
I dropped pounds in Graham’s cup and heard a quiet whimper. I followed the sound behind a row of cars outside Sainsbury’s and found a man with a broad Irish accent.
He was more reserved than Graham, but he accepted some water. His eyes were bright and untrusting. As he lit a cigarette, a money spider dropped from his hood.
“I’m not getting any help whatsoever, no claim, and no national insurance number,” he said.
“They’re meant to try and help you but they’re not doing anything.”
“No one’s approached me about the virus. Streetwalk came and gave me a squeeze of hand sanitiser but that was it.”
The Scottish Tenants Organisation is worried about, “lack of action” by both Westminster and the Scottish government. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged to provide £300,000 of funding to temporarily house those in need of immediate shelter.
Edinburgh’s council leader Adam McVey said: “We are committed to doing all that we can during this crisis, and we stand ready to support everyone who is or becomes homeless, in any way possible”.
Even so, many are wandering the streets. Two homeless men passed and nodded to the Irishman.
“I’m not worried,” said one, “We’ve been told we need to self-isolate for 14 days before you can do anything and if it gets worse then we can go and see someone.”
“I’ll have to stay in the graveyard for 14 days!” said the other.
When I asked where they would spend the night they pointed towards a row of doorways. They prefer to sleep outside. For them, it feels more like freedom; and they believe they are more likely to contract the virus in a crowded shelter. If they are offered accommodation, I doubt they will go.
“I’ll sleep just up there,” said one, “I think shelters are breeding grounds but if I did get it wouldn’t know where to go. You can’t go to the doctors, can't go to the hospital, you can't go anywhere.”
They have no access to food or medical care in this crisis, and they have underlying medical conditions. Still they feel lucky.
“I couldn’t care less about the virus, if I catch it, I catch it, but I know I’m not going to catch it. I’m on treatment for Hepatitis C and that’s a heavy body cleaner so I’m pretty sure that’ll sort it,” said the other.
“Anyway, how did you know we are homeless?”