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27 October 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 5:48am

How Covid-19 pitted Liverpool’s homeless against one another

Freedom of Information data exposes the difficult choices one local authority has made on housing. 

By Jonny Ball

Chris has lived in Darbyshire House in Old Swan, Liverpool, since 2017. It is one of several homeless hostels in the city, most of which are run by charitable providers. Before being referred there, he was living on the streets – “either in a tent, a doorway or an empty car”, he wrote via email. 

“When I first moved in I was told that the goal was to move people on within 3-6 months. Since then I seem to have fallen between the cracks. I find three years of my life have vanished in the blink of an eye.” 

 Chris’s local authority, Liverpool City Council, recently implemented an initiative that would have seen almost 200 rough sleepers moved into permanent accommodations ahead of him – and many others who had been living in temporary hostels for more than 12 months. 

At the beginning of lockdown, Liverpool’s Mayor, Joe Anderson, announced that rough sleepers would be sheltered in the city’s emptied hotels and bed and breakfasts while they were closed for commercial use during the pandemic. Greater Manchester’s Metro Mayor, Andy Burnham, took similar steps. 

Only a few days later, the government wrote to all local authorities, asking them to put similar measures in place under the so-called Everybody In scheme.

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Now the local authority has committed to permanently rehousing those 190 rough sleepers who were given temporary accomodation during the lockdown period. 

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But a Freedom of Information request made by Spotlight revealed that, as of August this year, 2,287 people were registered homeless in Liverpool. Many were staying with family or friends, or “sofa surfing” (a common precursor to homelessness). Some 320 were housed in the city’s charity-run hostels. Out of those, 135 had been a resident for 12 months or more.

Few would suggest that the rough sleepers should be moved back onto the streets. But some have questioned why long-term hostel residents – who have been on the waiting lists for years in many cases – weren’t prioritised for permanent housing to free up hostel accommodation for rough sleepers.

See also: John Bird: “I have never lived through anything else like this – and no one else has”

“When I first heard about [the scheme] I was pleased on behalf of the city,” Chris said, “for seemingly leading the way in committing to keep the rough sleepers off the streets permanently. But when I noticed that they were to be prioritised for tenancies I felt frustrated and let down.

“It especially annoys me that, had I remained homeless and entered the rough sleeper scheme, I would now be moving into my own property.”

Since Spotlight made enquiries into a policy that prioritised rough sleepers for permanent housing over long-term hostel residents, Chris has been allocated a social home, which he is now waiting to move into.

Moving rough sleepers into hostels would have kept the council in line with traditional approaches to tackling homelessness, which see individuals moving through different levels of housing, from supported, temporary hostel accommodation to transitional housing programmes before the final stage of taking up independent housing in the community. But Liverpool City Region is one of three areas that have been piloting a new strategy, Housing First, in which rough sleepers are moved immediately into secure tenancies in social homes, after which health, employment, addiction and related support services are delivered directly to their own homes.

“Liverpool’s got quite a strong focus on Housing First,” said Malcolm Page, assistant director of homelessness services at the Salvation Army. “Lots of local authorities are adopting that strategy, and it does bring with it the challenge of some people asking, ‘Why are you providing accommodation for those people ahead of me when I have been on the waiting list for two years?’ And that’s a challenge that we have to balance, which is looking at the needs of the individual.”

This month, the council confirmed to Spotlight that out of the 190 rough sleepers who were housed during lockdown, 44 had been moved into tenancies, 41 had been matched to properties and were waiting for viewings, 19 had refused a property, and 86 were still waiting to be matched. The council and social landlords were working through the remaining half to ensure they were given the opportunity for permanent housing.

Liverpool has won plaudits for using the coronavirus pandemic to redouble its efforts to end rough sleeping. Three years ago, it opened a permanent, all-year-round night shelter, Labre House, named after the patron saint of the homeless. 

The dormitory-style accommodation has made it impossible to socially distance, however. The shelter has lain empty since March. The Salvation Army has warned of an incoming homelessness crisis this winter, as Covid-19 has rendered many shelters across the country unsafe. The government has allocated £1m less than last year for local authorities to deal with the problem.

See also: Stay-at-home orders have exposed just how poor housing is, says Leilani Farha

Like many local councils, Liverpool is under severe financial constraints that have only been exacerbated by the crisis. But that has not prevented them from taking extraordinary measures to tackle street homelessness.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of homeless charity Crisis, described the council’s initiatives as “clear evidence that homelessness can be ended for good”.

But while the council has moved to end street homelessness, there is still a shortage of permanent housing for people trapped in what are meant to be short-term hostels. 

Speaking to Spotlight, Cllr Paul Brant, Liverpool’s cabinet member for public health and adult social care, was candid about the trade-off. “Ultimately, with a limited housing supply, if you are freeing up accommodation to provide a destination for people who are formerly rough sleeping, inevitably there are people who will have to wait longer as a result, and we’re very conscious about that,” he said. 

The problems the council faces regarding homelessness are indicative of a nationwide failure to build enough social housing over the past three decades. Catherine Ryder, director of policy and research at the National Housing Federation (NHF), told Spotlight that 90,000 new homes for social rent need to be built every year to house “both the backlog of people who need it now and those who will need it in future”.

Page agrees. “We fairly frequently talk to government about the need for a good social-house-building programme,” he said. “All these projects, all these initiatives like Housing First and the ability to move people on from temporary accommodation – because that’s what hostels are; they’re not meant to be a long-term solution for individuals – is to have some sort of a strategy around how we’re going to increase the rate of provision of social housing.”

Last year, only 6,338 social rented homes were built across the UK, according to the NHF. “The wider lack of social housing is one of the reasons that councils are forced to spend so much on temporary accommodation,” said Ryder. A report released in February by the homeless charity Shelter found that councils across the UK were spending £1.1bn a year on hostels like Chris’s. The issue is indicative of what the Salvation Army has called a “short-term approach” that leads to extra costs to local authorities down the line. The charity recently published a report, Future-Proof the Roof, that showed how investment in tackling rough sleeping and homelessness would lead to savings.

Spotlight’s Freedom of Information request also revealed that Liverpool City Council pays £6.441m for its homeless-hostel providers annually – roughly the amount needed to build 75 social homes.

See also: Revealed: Nearly 20,000 households made homeless during pandemic

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