Rough sleepers could face a deadly choice this winter
The dangers of the virus entering and circulating amongst a homeless population that is unable to isolate are horrifyingly real, writes Neil Coyle MP. | PA Images
If the government allow non-Covid secure communal shelters to open, they will be putting homeless people’s lives at risk; forcing rough sleepers to choose between cold streets or catching Covid. The solution is simple – extend ‘Everyone In’.
Every year when temperatures plummet, night shelters provide communal sleeping spaces for people who would otherwise be on the streets.
Typically they’re run by charities, voluntary organisations or faith groups and are located in buildings like community centres, mosques or church halls. They are by no means a solution to ending homelessness, which has risen every year since Labour left office in 2010, but they have been vital in ensuring that some of the most vulnerable people in society can get a warm bed for the night, as well as a wash and a hot meal.
Last year in London alone, night shelters were used by around 700 homeless people. But, as with almost every aspect of our daily lives, covid-19 has turned things upside down for providers, who are warning that social distancing and other ‘covid secure’ measures mean it is simply impossible to open communal accommodation.
With a second wave of the pandemic taking hold across the country, shelters cannon open this winter.
In January, the government claimed there were only 5,000 rough sleepers across the country, but support for homeless people announced at the start of the lockdown to prevent the spread of covid - the ‘Everyone In’ scheme - led to self-contained accommodation being provided for 15,000 rough sleepers.
Sadly, Ministers who instructed councils to get ‘everyone’ inside have reneged on their commitment by refusing to cover the cost for some rough sleepers. The programme has nevertheless shown that street homelessness can be ended if there is a political will to do so. Now that ‘Everyone In’ is ending, local authorities and homeless organisations are rightly asking what now happens to rough sleepers.
Many already vulnerable rough sleepers are now facing the doubly lethal threat of coronavirus and the cold weather this winter
In this pandemic, homelessness is more than ever a public health issue. One study in The Lancet estimated that ‘Everyone In’ prevented 266 covid deaths during the first wave among England’s homeless population, as well as 21,092 infections, 1,164 hospital admissions and 338 stays in intensive care.
The tragic consequences of failing to provide self-contained accommodation have been seen elsewhere, like in San Francisco where homeless deaths tripled after many shelters closed or in New York, where shelters remained open but the covid mortality rate for homeless people is 67% higher than the rest of the city’s population.
The dangers of the virus entering and circulating amongst a homeless population that is unable to isolate are horrifyingly real. Shameful statistics from last year show that two homeless people a day were already dying on our streets. With the advent of a global pandemic, many already vulnerable rough sleepers are now facing the doubly lethal threat of coronavirus and the cold weather this winter.
This week in Parliament the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick attempted to reassure me that the government understood the problem and would be issuing new guidance. But I share the homelessness sector’s scepticism about whether MHCLG will provide either the accommodation or the resources needed to protect people and prevent the NHS being consumed by Covid-19.
I suspect this government will rejig guidance to allow non-Covid secure communal shelters to open. This means Ministers will be putting homeless people’s lives at risk; forcing rough sleepers to choose between cold streets or catching covid. It is a sickening prospect. This dangerous scenario could also put the NHS under significant pressure, with a bill for taxpayers that swamps the cost of more appropriate accommodation.
There is no vaccine for covid, but we do have a cure for rough sleeping: extend and resource ‘Everyone In’. We don’t even need to undertake further research or await the outcome of a trial.
The remedy to save homeless lives this winter is already here and it would be unforgivable if Minsters chose to ignore it.
Neil Coyle is the Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and co-chair of the APPG for Ending Homelessness.