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We cannot renege on the responsibility we have opened up before us to rough sleepers

We cannot renege on the responsibility we have opened up before us to rough sleepers

“We must not decant people and responsibility back onto the streets. We cannot fiddle and dither with our human rights responsibilities," says Lord Bird | PA Images

4 min read

The Government’s action to house rough sleepers during this crisis is welcome, even if done for selfish reasons. We cannot go back to how we were before after lockdown

I am not so sure that many Members of Parliament have entirely realised the full significance of the promise to remove all homeless people from the streets and put them in places of safety to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

Government, up until this point, has worked through ‘homeless brokers’, charities and individuals to assign their sense of responsibility.

Now they have emboldened these same people to lift homeless people, rough sleepers, off the streets and house them at government expense in budget hotels, flats – anywhere available for social distancing.

Since the ending of laws to clear our streets of what were called vagrants and itinerants in the early 1960s, governments have refused to take responsibility for the ‘linear dormitories’ that have been thrown up.

That is not to say there have not been rough sleeper initiatives since the late 1980s. Rather, there was a refusal to see street dwellers as part of the social contract that an incoming government makes each election day with the people.

But in one fell swoop this Government has said “all are included”. We, of course, know why. It is self preservation to include people who could, if remaining outside of society, become the residuum of infection, if not treated and isolated.

When I was told that the Government intended to lift all homeless people from our streets I was euphoric. I told my staff at The Big Issue and it was decided to stop selling the publication on the streets. The health of our vendors and society at large was more important than The Big Issue social business.

My euphoria was because there had never been a government who did any more than tinker and fiddle with their responsibility for people who were often little more than an overflow from the A&E departments, and did little more than pledge large-sounding tranches of money that did not address the human rights abuse which is street living.

The Covid-19 crisis has made us aware of the importance of the ‘all’ in all things to do with the safe running of society. That every last delivery nurse, doctor, hospital porter, driver, bus driver, cleaner, supermarket, soldier, sailor or airman is in on this social agreement we have with each other, insisted on and administered by our elected politicians.

And now to include the most broken in our doorways and alleyways means extending a sense of society to all, a sense that cannot be broken at the end of the curfew. We must not decant people and responsibility back onto the streets. We cannot fiddle and dither with our human rights responsibilities that has to include all of us.

Including homeless people in the social equation actually means changing everything with regard to our sense of civic justice. In the same way we cannot go back to leaving the NHS to mop up all of our social problems around poverty, we cannot now renege on the responsibility we have opened up before us towards the desolate street dweller.

Post-curfew we have laid out for us a future that could utilise all of our social resources better to prevent people falling down and becoming marginalised at great cost to themselves and society. We could stop going from emergency to emergency, failing 35% of our school children who then become those outside us; the unskilled, the unhealthy, and the unincluded.

Monumental times await us. The last war built social cohesion. Covid-19 allows us to take social cohesion to a higher place, for the benefit of us all; not just for some.


Due to the coronavirus outbreak, The Big Issue took the decision to safeguard its network of vendors by asking them to stop selling on streets across the whole of the UK. You can find out more how to support them in this time at

Lord Bird is a Crossbench peer and founder of The Big Issue.

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