Lectures

“The Hostel saved me, really” – addiction and homelessness under Covid-19

This article is part of the series:

When I did my second shift of volunteering at the Hostel[1], new rules were already in place: ‘stay-at-home’ orders had been issued and were enforceable (if not necessarily enforced) by police all over the UK. I arrived to prepare dinner for all the guests and was surprised to see so many people in the Lounge, the main hang-out area for everyone at the Hostel, waiting for food. As I learnt later, there were about twenty residents in the Hostel at the time. 

I was new to the whole environment and – unlike many of the other homeless support institutions I had volunteered at before in London and Paris since 2012 – most of the guests I encountered at the Hostel seemed very stable, secure and even optimistic. Many were chatting openly to me, the newcomer volunteer; I got along well with everyone. The atmosphere was jovial and friendly  

Towards the end of our shift as dinner was served, a young man walked in who was rather obviously not in a good shape. It was seemingly hard for him to make it through the room, or to simply stay on his legs. He took a plate full of food, gulped it down and quickly disappeared downstairs. My fellow volunteer that evening, Laura, who had been around for much longer than I have, knew what was going on. Ben had relapsed heavily since the rules had changed; while he had been on ‘a good path’ towards more long-term accommodation before, he was not doing well under the ‘stay-at-home’ orders. His consumption of heroin, possibly also crack, had dramatically increased over the last weeks.  

Rules were made elsewhere 

The rules that were governing the Hostel at the time were made by its manager, John, and his wider team. He had been my main contact to begin with[2] and I was in regular conversation with him through the whole period as Covid-19 was unfolding. John, who was responsible for coordination and administration, was not going in for frontline work during the first weeks of the ‘lockdown.’ In addition to running the Hostel (and several other institutions under the same umbrella organization) and coordinating the overall team and the emergency response, John’s health was compromised. He had very good reasons not to ‘go in.’ His strength was elsewhere and his overall responsibility was to keep everything running as smoothly as possible.  

One major task John had to deal with quickly, right at the end of March when the ‘stay-at-home’ orders were put in place, was to rewrite the guidelines governing the Hostel. How do you ensure the security of everyone while also supporting individual needs? The main change in the Hostel, as in many other settings, was one towards decreasing everyone’s freedom of movement. The rule that was governing the Hostel for the majority of the ‘stay-at-home’ orders[3] did not allow anyone to leave the Hostel for more than two hours in a maximum of two outings per day.  

However, up to sometime in mid-April, this rule in particular was not enforced. It wasn’t exactly clear what was necessary or right, or how to translate the vague government guidance. People like Ben[4] used the confusion to their advantage and continued to come and go more or less as they pleased. As John explained to me, it was particularly due to repeated breaches of this ‘stay inside’ rule by Ben and others that the stay-at-home orders started to be enforced much more strictly. John took a decision that prioritized the security of the twenty residents and staff and volunteers versus some people’s individual needs.  

He knew – or at least assumed – that many of the guests continued to go out to buy drugs. Not only would that involve interacting with drug dealers and other people with whom substances were shared with; for some, it would also involve making additional money from begging or shoplifting. In any case, it was clear to John that as soon as people were outside the Hostel, the likelihood of them interacting with others and getting infected was enormously high. He did not want to risk that. 

They started with warnings when people stayed out longer than the permitted two hours. The process wasn’t fully transparent but after several warning, eventually evictions followed. Or as members of staff put it: people were asked to leave. Within two weeks, seven people left the Hostel.  

*** 

In hindsight, I observe this situation through the lens of ‘realizing a duty of care.’ Management at the hostel around John had to focus on what was best for everyone as a group. In the specific situation in the early weeks of the ‘stay-at-home’ orders which also led to an absence of specialized services (e.g. services for people dealing with substance use or mental health), the consequence of this focus was the eviction of some. To protect the majority from the virus, by this rationale, the people that were not following the rules and put people in danger were asked to leave. It so happened that some of the people evicted from the Hostel were in fact the ones most in need of a kind of care that wasn’t available or easily accessible at the time.  

There was something I only recognize now, a month or so later, which made this decision easier for the management team: they were in fact not there, not on the frontline turning the rules into action. A depersonalization was put in place – not consciously for this reason, at least, but effectively so – between the people making up the rules and the people putting them into action. Retrospectively, this kind of abstraction was surely helpful for evictions to become part of an institution of support. In order to protect some people, others had to go. And the protection of the majority was most important. On paper, in the abstract, this all made sense.  

But for some it was all good – until now  

It’s now mid-May and the stay-at-home orders were relaxed just recently. Although nothing much changed, the new rules allowed people to spend more time outside, which was exactly what the guests in the Hostel had been waiting for. Unlimited exercise? Not quite, but at least for the residents the changes in guidance now allows for unlimited time outside, back to what it was before. John and the team had felt like they had to relax the rules drastically.  

On my first day-shift after the rule changes were put in place, I met Tom for the first time. I had arrived just in time to join him for his breakfast at around 11am. We got to chatting immediately as there was no one else in the lounge of the Hostel. Tom told me how he had moved in just about three weeks ago, midway through the ‘stay-at-home’ orders. He had been in a hostel outside of Cambridge for a period before sleeping rough on the streets; outreach teams offered him and his partner accommodation in the Hostel and he gratefully took it. Similar to Ben, Tom had been on a heavy drug bender when the lockdown first started. Further complicated by the insecurity of his and his partner’s living situation as well as his mental instability, drugs were a way to switch off and head into what I call ‘drug time’ elsewhere. They helped him to cope.  

During that period on the streets of Cambridge, Tom had been doing between 4 and 5 injections of heroin daily, which amounted to about £30-40 worth of drugs. His partner consumed with him but didn’t want to get the money illegally so it was all up to Tom to hustle the income together, mostly through begging and petty crime. When the two arrived at the Hostel, they knew what they were getting into: “It was almost impossible to keep up an addiction with the 2 hours outside [rule]. It was the best time to start going through a withdrawal. You can’t really do that when you’re on the street.” Tom went on Subutex, which prevents him from taking any other substances (“You don’t feel anything so it would be a waste of money.”) and has been clean from when he moved in. “[The Hostel] saved me, really.” 

***  

But what is going to happen now that the doors are wide open again is unclear. The streets are busier so making money from begging will become easier, too. The guests are already spending much more time outside, most likely also in groups. How quickly will people like Tom and Ben (who had gone through a similar phase of calming down after the first spike in consumption early on during the ‘stay-at-home’ orders) go back onto street drugs? Fortunately, specialized services have mostly opened up again so that they can access drug and mental health support more easily.  

Most importantly, however, one question remains, intimately linked with the effective reopening of the Hostel: when will they report the first case of Covid-19, which has so far been prevented from entering the Hostel? And what will that mean for people with complex needs? Will they go through a similarly stressful up-and-down cycle? What decisions will have to be taken then to ‘save people’?  


Since 2017 Dr Johannes Lenhard is the Centre Coordinator of the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, the Economy and Social Change. He is an anthropologist based at Cambridge University where he also finished his PhD in 2017 on the economy of homeless people in Paris. Prior work in the VC investing world led him to his current research project for a book on the ‘Ethics of Venture Capital’.  He recently conducted fieldwork in San Francisco, New York, London and Berlin with VC investors while also working on a project on the effects of Covid-19 on homeless people. Last year his edited volume Home – Ethnographic Encounters was published with Bloomsbury. 


[1] In order to protect the anonymity of my informants as well as the institutions involved in this research, I am using pseudonyms and also re-arrange details of specific life stories and observations where I feel it to be necessary and appropriate. The Hostel was not located in London but in a medium-sized UK town.

[2] I was engaged in a more long-term project helping the management of the Hostel evaluate a new project with a team of researchers and had met John for the first time about 3 months prior to the Covid-19 outbreak and my volunteering activities.

[3] This was the case for all of April and the beginning of May. The ‘stay-at-home’ rules were relaxed by the UK government in the second week of May. I will talk more about this change of situations below.

[4] I got to know Ben and spoke to him several times after our initial, rather quiet encounter over my second volunteering shift. He told me about these ‘breaches’ himself.


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