Lessons from 2020: ‘Everyone In’ has shown that rough sleeping can be ended if there’s a political plan of action
Ministers and councils saved a 1,000 lives by providing self-contained accommodation to homeless people in the pandemic. We must not fall at the last hurdle in solving rough sleeping for good
The last 10 years have seen a relentless increase in rough sleeping. All homelessness is harmful, but rough sleeping is the most damaging for the individual, and for public spending through avoidable NHS care and council emergency accommodation.
The government pays for an annual headcount of rough sleepers. Each year, charities tell the government the headcount is an underestimate. Ministers seem to assume it’s cheaper to ignore the problem and allow deaths on our streets; 726 last year alone. In January, the headcount estimated about 5,000 rough sleepers. Ministers patted themselves on the back for a drop of what appeared to be 74 people.
Covid meant the need to protect the NHS and to ensure everyone had the means of avoid infecting others. Ministers told councils to accommodate all rough sleepers under the programme title ‘Everyone In’ and, amazingly, it housed around 15,000 people – three times the rough sleeping estimate.
Sadly, that title was a misnomer as ministers refused to cover ‘everyone’. Councils and charities are owed a debt of gratitude by the people they housed and by our NHS which they acted to protect, and owed an apology and debt of millions by the ministers whose instructions they followed.
Without local government stepping up, communal shelters could have been used akin to those adopted in parts of the US. Studies show the high risk to rough sleepers, staff and volunteers as well as health practitioners of communal models which contributed to higher infection rates and deaths elsewhere. The UK approach saved lives; one study estimated 266 people were alive as a result of Everyone In and over 1,000 hospital admissions prevented.
It is vital ministers do not fail now. Help must be extended alongside this crucial stage of vaccine rollout.
Going forward there are other positives to focus on for 2021, including improving the robustness of the annual rough sleeper headcount.
Ministers must also be zealous to meet their ambitious manifesto commitment of ending rough sleeping by 2024 as this requires sustained, sufficient funding and no exemptions from the programme.
If achieved, this would be a positive legacy post-Covid to make us all proud. Let’s hope ministers choose this approach to save lives and save the public money longer-term.
Neil Coyle is Labour MP for Bermondsey & Old Southwark