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31 March 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 10:21am

Why does it take a pandemic to house rough sleepers?

On 27 March, the government gave local authorities in England 48 hours to help everybody off the streets. The original deadline allowed five years.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On Thursday 26 March, every council leader in England received a letter from Luke Hall MP, the minister for local government and homelessness. It asked their councils to house all rough sleepers “by the end of the week” to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The number of people living on the streets has increased by 141 per cent since 2010 (a figure thought to be underestimated, and questioned by the UK Statistics Authority).

This makes the government’s policy to end all rough sleeping within three days hugely welcome news to those suffering on the streets, and to the charities and other groups dedicated to fighting homelessness. Jon Sparkes, chief executive of the homelessness charity Crisis, called it a “landmark moment” last week. In a letter to the New Statesman, the founder of the Big Issue John Bird writes, “We are witnessing a radical change in responsibility” of central government for homelessness, and calls the pandemic “a chance to end homelessness”.

Before the coronavirus shutdown, government policy was to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament”, according to the 2019 Conservative party manifesto, which would mean a deadline of 2025. Expediting this commitment by five years, following a decade-long homelessness crisis, is the right policy – if drastically late.

New funding includes £1.6bn for local authorities to help ease pressure coronavirus puts on their services (which isn’t specific to tackling homelessness), and £3.2m emergency support specifically to help rough sleepers to self-isolate. However, questions have been raised about how councils would find enough funding and accommodation to house all rough sleepers so rapidly and provide ongoing support to keep people safe.

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While welcoming the policy and praising an “impressive drive” over the weekend by local government to house people, Crisis’s head of policy and campaigns Hannah Gousy says the existing funding is “not going to be anywhere near enough in terms of what’s actually needed”.

She suggests a “dedicated funding stream for local authorities will be absolutely essential” to acquire enough appropriate accommodation, and also to provide support for residents once they are housed. “If you’re housing lots of people who have been sleeping rough in a hotel, how is that hotel staffed? How is food provided to those people? How are their support needs met?

“These are emergency measures needed to make what the government wants to do right now – in terms of getting people off the streets – doable.”

Legal barriers to state housing, housing benefit and public services (such as immigration status) would also need to be lifted, and enough funding added to ensure people “aren’t forced to return to the streets” once the shutdown is lifted, she warns.

John Bird echoes this in his letter: “This is the time to eradicate the human rights abuse of street living. And while the government’s latest steps are welcome, a big question remains. What will happen after the crisis, and once we’re through the emergency?”

Figures for how many rough sleepers have been housed so far during this crisis are not immediately available. It would be very difficult to measure anyway, given existing government records of rough sleepers are likely to underestimate the reality. However, a representative of Crisis tells me that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) reported to charities on Friday 27 March that 4,000 people rough sleeping or in shelters had been moved to self-contained accommodation so far. The MHCLG was contacted for updated figures, but had not provided any at the time of publication.

Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has announced 1,000 new rooms across Greater Manchester for 180 rough sleepers and 720 people in shared accommodation who have been identified, and Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson said the council is working with local hotels to house the homeless in Liverpool. As of yesterday, more than 60 rough sleepers and homeless people had been moved out of Liverpool City Council’s Labre House night shelter to alternative accommodation due to the coronavirus outbreak, and only three people were counted sleeping on the street on Sunday evening. The council and its partners have been offered the use of more than 100 single occupancy aparthotels and 50 more for family groups across the city.

While councils have “intensified their efforts since the coronavirus outbreak” to help people off the streets over the weekend, some councils are still struggling to secure accommodation, according to a spokesperson for the Local Government Association (LGA). “[This is] not helped by the recent closures of hotels and caravan parks, and some insurance policies which may limit the ability of some hotel owners to take part in housing rough sleepers.”

The LGA is calling on the government to “increase support to those councils that are struggling to source accommodation, hire additional staff, and support the people they are accommodating – including with essential basics such as food”.

Resources to keep temporary accommodation (with rooms appropriate for self-isolation) open are also stretched.

The youth homelessness charity Centrepoint subsidises its hostels for young people with donations from the public, which will decrease during the economic crisis caused by coronavirus. “We’re really worried in these uncertain times that voluntary fundraising income is going to drop because people are really cutting down; they don’t know whether they’re going to be in work, for how long, and whether their wages are going to be paid,” says Centrepoint director of policy, Balbir Chatrik.

A ring-fenced grant from the government to immediately replace this lost income would help keep hostels open, she argues. “We need the support now because we’re incurring the costs now. We are concerned about how we’re going to keep all our hostels running. What’s going to happen to the young people we support?.. Unless we can make sure we’ve got adequate funding, unintended consequences of Covid-19 will be that we may be forced to close some of our hostels down, and we don’t want to do that.”

Other financial pressures include a rise in demand for hostel places, as people forced to stay indoors face unsustainable living situations. Personal protective equipment to protect staff and hostel residents from contracting the virus is also in short supply, according to Centrepoint.

“It’s not just about taking rough sleepers off the street now,” says Chatrik. “It’s about preventing other homeless people going onto the streets because of this crisis.”

The MHCLG was contacted for comment on this story, but did not respond.

Update: 31/3/20

At 15.34, an MHCLG spokesperson responded:

“This is a huge joint effort, and we all need to come together – the UK Government, local councils, charities, health and care services and accommodation providers – to get everyone who is sleeping rough off the streets and into appropriate accommodation.

“We are supporting councils in England with £3.2 million to specifically help rough sleepers and a further £1.6 billion to respond to the wider pressures during this national emergency.”

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