LEICESTER, United Kingdom – It was an image made famous by Pope Francis: Homeless people sleeping in a Las Vegas parking lot – with social distancing in place – while the city’s multitude of hotels were empty.

“There are so many homeless people today,” Francis said during his morning Mass on April 2. “We ask St. Teresa of Kolkata to awaken in us a sense of closeness to so many people in society who, in everyday life, live hidden but, like the homeless, in the moment of the crisis, are living in this way.”

Homeless people in Las Vegas practice social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic March 30, 2020. (Credit: Steve Marcus/Reuters via CNS.)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of attention has been paid to those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Most often, this has been the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.

However, the homeless are also at risk. Not only are they often suffering from serious health problems, they are also less likely to seek medical help. Many homeless also suffer from substance abuse, mental health problems, and behavioral disorders.

In Britain, the government told all local authorities to get homeless people off the streets during the lockdown, and local hotels have been used to house those who had been living on the streets.

“Ironically, [the crisis has been beneficial] in that the majority now have a roof over their heads, are being fed regularly and, it is the intention if not already happening in all areas, that they will be engaged by health professionals,” said Jim O’Connor, the chief executive of NOAH Enterprise, a Catholic charity that works with the homeless.

“It also provides an opportunity for us to work more closely with them on a one-to-one basis, through which we and other agencies can seek to put in place the support that they need,” he told Crux.

O’Connor said the scheme has also enabled the homeless to self-isolate, which has reduced the spread of infection in a group considered to be among the most vulnerable.

He added that getting people into the hotel is just the first step, and NOAH has been working to secure the people’s wellbeing.

One thing NOAH staff are doing is making sure the hotel accommodation is adequate. For example, does the room a tea kettle? A television? Or even a window?

“We have given everyone a mobile phone, and everyone is contacted every day see how they are,” he said. “We are very, very aware of the threat to their mental health in all of this.”

Although the crisis has been nerve-wracking for the homeless and those that work with them, O’Connor said the government’s housing plan is working.

He gave the example of Luton in Bedfordshire, which has one of the highest numbers of homelessness in England.

“We know of three people on the streets – who were there by choice – and can’t be persuaded to enter accommodation,” he pointed out. “It is very effective. It’s working.”

It’s so effective, O’Connor hopes it persuades government officials to look at the experience in the post-coronavirus era.

“What I hope will happen is there will be a realization of how vital accommodation is to the wellbeing of the individual and of the community,” he said.

O’Connor noted that the average lifespan of a chronically homeless person is just 45, and people living on the street puts a huge demand on health, welfare, and police services.

“If you were standing back as a government and doing a cost-benefit analysis, the case for accommodation would be so evident, it would be so beneficial, that you wouldn’t even stop,” he said.

He said the experience of the rush to house the homeless in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic showed “people will follow; they will take the guidance – the support is there and it is working.”

The goal should be, O’Connor said, to move to what is called a “Housing First” policy, which gives homeless people accommodation without conditions while providing intensive social support in rebuilding their lives.

“Housing First is an international evidence-based approach that uses independent, stable housing as a steppingstone to allow individuals experiencing multiple disadvantage to begin recovery and move away from homelessness,” he told Crux. “Housing First provides intensive, flexible, and open-ended support and existing evidence has shown that it successfully ends homelessness for at least eight out of every ten people across Europe.”

However, he said the critical factor is the availability of accommodation.

“In countries such as Finland there was sufficient social housing stock to address the problem. Here there isn’t, there is a dire national shortage. However, there is a willingness to acquire long-term leases from private sector landlords and housing associations,” O’Connor explained.

He suggested that has more and more properties become vacant in town centers due to change in retail patterns, some of that property could be converted into accommodation for the homeless.

“I’s not revolutionary to think about conversion of properties into accommodations and their availability, and I don’t that would be a showstopper,” he said.

He said the current crisis is making people realize they have to look out for each other.

“I think coronavirus is also telling us that no man is an island, and we are all dependent on each other,” O’Connor said. “If we don’t have the postman, if we don’t have the dustbin man, if we don’t have the person serving at the till in Tesco, it all has a negative effect on how we are, so the wellbeing of our fellow citizen is critical.”

And that includes those living on the streets.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome