Homeless People Face A Winter Of Freezing Streets Or Non Covid-Secure Shelters, The Government Has Been Warned
The government has been warned that a fresh round of funding is needed to avoid homeless people this Winter facing a choice of rough sleeping on the streets as temperatures plummet, or risking exposure to Covid in unsafe night shelters.
Concern is also growing among charity workers that homelessness will rise before the year is out without a clear commitment from the government.
Despite additional funding being made available to local councils and charities to provide Covid-safe accommodation over Winter, “our worry and real concern is that it's just not going to support enough people,” explains Jasmine Basran, policy and public affairs manager at Crisis.
“There's going to be gaps, and there will be people left out, and people facing the reality of either sleeping rough in the winter or going into a shelter where there may be a risk of coronavirus.”
A recent study by UCL estimated that the Government’s initial ‘Everyone In’ response during the first lockdown avoided 266 deaths, 21,092 infections, 1,164 hospital admissions and 338 admissions to Intensive Care Units among England’s homeless population.
However, a report published this week by Crisis reveals that the continuation of the programme was inconsistent across local authorities in England, with funds running low and unclear communication from the central government.
This has led to concerns about the safety of the homeless population throughout the second wave – particularly as a third of homeless people in the UK have underlying health conditions, and the numbers of those experiencing homelessness are increasing again as unemployment rises, family homes become overcrowded under Covid restrictions, and ‘sofa surfing’ becomes almost impossible.
In London alone, 3,444 people slept rough between July and September this year, with well over half sleeping rough for the first time.
According to Caroline Bernard, the head of policy and communications at Homeless Link: “Without a pandemic, winter is always difficult… but without night shelters being open, the risks are even greater.”
“Without an ‘Everyone In’ two, there will not be enough accommodation for people to move into in the winter period that is safe and secure for people who are at risk of a) rough sleeping and b) contracting Covid.”
In March, the government ordered that all communal night shelters should be shut, due to the risks of Covid spreading. However, now it says that night shelters should be used as a “last resort” , and they have issued operating principles for their reopening.
While St Mungo’s say that they will not be re-opening their shelters as they “can't see how [they] can make communal shelters safe”, Crisis reports that some local authority areas are being forced to consider reopening their winter night shelters due to financial pressures.
Neil Coyle, Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and co-chair of the APPG on Ending Homelessness, describes the government’s response as “blurring the lines and in effect, giving a green light to unsafe accommodation… They are potentially allowing situations where people may die. And the pressure on the NHS will needlessly increase.”
A report from Coalition for the Homeless in New York showed that Covid-19-related deaths among homeless New Yorkers in shelters in April was 1.6 times higher than the general population. In Paris, 40% of the homeless population has Covid, with rates of Covid cases in emergency shelters ranging from 23% to 62%.
“Opening shelters will be really, really hard to make completely COVID secure,” explains Basran. “Instead we need to see the government provide access to accommodation where people can have individual rooms and individual washing facilities.”
Social distancing measures in shelters will also likely mean reduced number of support workers and volunteers, meaning reduced capacity for those in need.
“Ultimately, even with shelters opening and doing everything they can, some people are going to be forced to sleep rough. So that's why there just needs to be a much more comprehensive approach the same as we saw in March… If anything goes wrong, if something does happen, if there is an outbreak in a shelter, that would be really, really dangerous,” Basran says.
“If the choice is between sleeping rough or sleeping in a dangerous shelter, some will choose to continue sleeping rough so it undermines the efficacy of the whole programme if people are facing choices that leaves them unsafe either way,” Coyle adds.
“The bottom line is this makes things less safe for many of us, not just for individual homeless people. This isn't an us and them scenario. They will be using the same NHS services if they become affected as anyone else.”
The government recently announced a £15m Protect Programme targeted at 10 areas with high levels of rough sleeping, with instructions to prioritise the clinically vulnerable. While it has been described as “a start” by Homeless Link and other homelessness charities, it is widely considered to not be enough for councils and services who are already stretched by the scale of homelessness provision needed in the pandemic.
Birmingham Council is one of those eligible for the Protect Programme, and has adopted an everyone-in-permanently approach to the pandemic, spending £3m on housing thousands of homeless people or those at risk of homelessness, and getting rough sleeper numbers in the city down to single figures.
Cllr Sharon Thompson, Cabinet Member for Homes and Neighbourhoods in Birmingham thinks the Protect Programme will help, but criticises the government’s communications when it comes to announcing new funding for homelessness – saying she often found out herself about new funding and announcements from the television and then had to wait for official guidance, which makes supporting a transient cohort such as the homeless additionally challenging.
“We've been drip fed funding. They give us some funding, and then all of a sudden, we don't know when the next tranche or if there is going to be a next tranche when it comes to Covid. And then they say to us very quickly, we are going to put funding out now, you've got a really quick turnaround time with a really quick deadline. So that doesn't support us in trying to build in some level of stability through a very difficult pandemic.”
Southwark Council has had a 51% increase in homelessness applications during the pandemic compared to 2019 and has overspent on homelessness by £8.9m, even taking into consideration the government money it has already received.
While Cllr Helen Dennis, Southwark’s cabinet member for Social Support and Homelessness, says she welcomes the Protect Programme, its allocation of the £15m will “clearly” not cover the existing overspend, and the council is yet to receive clear instruction about who is covered by the programme.
“There hasn’t been that clarity. [The Protect Programme announcement ] talked about targeting the most vulnerable sleepers, which clearly is not the same as Everyone In. In my mind, all rough sleepers are vulnerable. That's a challenging judgement call to make and thing to say,” says Dennis. Both Birmingham and Southwark Council have taken the decision not to re-open night shelters, and are instead working with their charity partners to create new self-contained accommodation for rough sleepers.
“At the moment, the numbers of people who are sleeping rough on our streets have unfortunately been increasing, we've been putting in place self contained, Covid safe provision, because we know that we have to do it. It's the right thing to do in the absence of any funding commitment from the government.”
Local authorities, charities and Labour MPs are now calling for a re-iteration of the widely praised ‘Everyone In’ approach from March, with additional funding.
The scheme saw local authorities told directly by the government to provide self contained accommodation for all those who were homeless or at risk of homelessness, including those who usually cannot access housing support such as those with No Recourse to Public Funds or individuals who would be considered low priority such as single males.
It was backed by £3.2m of targeted funding, alongside £3.2bn for local councils to assist the vulnerable generally. Nearly 30,000 people were accommodated including in hotels, B&Bs, student accommodation, and offered other support to end the homelessness cycle.
Two-thirds of those housed have now moved into settled accommodation. A ban on evictions, increases in the local housing allowance, and the income support for those furloughed also helped people to keep their homes who otherwise may have become homeless, and the government has invested in bringing forward support housing plans and interim accommodation.
In September, the government allocated £91.5 million to 274 councils to fund their individual plans for rough sleepers over the coming months.
The government has also provided £2m for the Homelessness Winter Transformation Fund, to help homelessness, faith, community and voluntary sector organisations provide single room and Covid-19 secure accommodation for people experiencing homelessness this winter, and a £10m Cold Weather Fund for all local authorities to bring forward Covid-secure accommodation this winter.
A Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “The government has taken unprecedented action to support the most vulnerable people in our society during the pandemic – backed by over £700 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping this year alone.
“This work is ongoing and by September we had helped move over 19,000 people into settled accommodation.”
“We’re working with councils, charities and other partners to protect vulnerable rough sleepers this winter and launched the £15 million Protect Programme to ensure local areas facing the biggest challenges get the help they need to support rough sleepers.”