NEWS
15/05/2020 18:00 BST

Fears Over Government's Plans For Homeless People Placed In Hotels During Lockdown

With no long-term funding plan for emergency hotels, councils and charities have their say on what needs to happen next.

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Councils leaders and homeless charities say they are worried about life after lockdown for those helped off the streets – with some hotel contracts set to end and no long-term funding plan to extend them.

The latest count in England shows the government’s “everyone in” policy has seen 5,400 people offered emergency accommodation in hotels and B&Bs, 90% of rough sleepers known to councils at the beginning of the crisis.

In Wales, approximately 500 people have been moved into emergency accommodation since the pandemic started, with single digits left in each local authority. And in Scotland, outreach services are reporting there are fewer than 30 rough sleepers left across the country, with about 200 people in hotels.

But with some contracts set to end in June, frontline workers and charities have told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Bureau Local about their fears over what happens next. Councils in England also fear they will be left to fund the next stage themselves.

Charity Crisis told the Bureau that the first estimate of the cost of supporting everyone taken off the streets so far into proper, permanent accommodation was £97m over a year – and it has said as much to the government.

The charity says that figure can be set against the £3.8bn the government has already announced for additional support to councils since the start of the coronavirus crisis. But bosses stressed the cash needs to be ringfenced to stop councils using it elsewhere. 

“It’s completely unacceptable that people are being left abandoned on our streets, and that people are at risk of being kicked out of hotels because councils lack the funds for them to stay – the job simply isn’t finished,” said Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis.

“The initial emergency response to the outbreak showed what can be done when the political will and leadership from central government is there – but if we retreat into a failed ‘business as usual’, handing the issue back to overstretched local councils with no ring-fenced funding, then we let down not just the thousands experiencing homelessness today, but many thousands more at risk from the economic downturn we are entering.”

The Manchester Evening News (MEN) obtained a leaked report given to the region’s combined authority revealing that the Ministry for Communities, Housing and Local Government (MHCLG) will not be financially supporting homeless accommodation in the long-term.

They report that the document stated: “MHCLG have drawn a line under ‘everyone in’ activity and is now asking local authorities to focus on ‘step down’ and ‘move on’ for those who have been accommodated as a result.”

The Bureau has also been told that, in London, there was no expectation of long-term funding for the hotel system.

Charities in the Greater London Authority-run hotels had heard MHCLG funding was coming to an end and that existing contracts with hotels were unlikely to continue. They worry that those on no recourse to public funds (NRPF) or those without documentation – many of whom are being supported under the Covid-19 scheme – will no longer be able to receive housing.

In response to the MEN’s revelation on Thursday, MHCLG said: “Any suggestion that the government is reneging on the commitment set out at the start of this national emergency is entirely wrong.

“We have been clear councils must continue to provide safe accommodation for those that need it, and any suggestion that funding is being withdrawn or people asked to leave hotels is unfounded.

“The latest figures show over 90% of rough sleepers known to councils at the beginning of this crisis have now been made offers of safe accommodation and we have announced Dame Louise Casey will spearhead the next phase of the government’s support for rough sleepers during the pandemic.

“While councils continue to provide accommodation to those that need it, it is only responsible that we work with partners to ensure rough sleepers can move into long-term, safe accommodation once the immediate crisis is over.”

Council chiefs in London, which faces the most significant homelessness crisis in the country, remain unconvinced.

London Councils is calling for a phased lifting of lockdown measures to “avoid a cliff edge”. It is demanding sufficient government funding to support rough sleepers and find long-term housing for all, as well as a 12-month suspension of NRPF restrictions to allow financial support for those who would otherwise return to the streets.  

London Councils’ housing chief Cllr Darren Rodwell said: “Since the start of the pandemic, boroughs and the GLA have worked flat out to support homeless Londoners and secure emergency accommodation for around 4,000 rough sleepers.

“In a time of immense challenge, this has been a magnificent achievement on the part of London’s homelessness services. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to build on this progress and embed a permanent reduction in rough sleeping in the capital. Otherwise, we risk rough sleepers returning to the streets – and no one wants to see that.

“Boroughs need urgent clarity on the government’s planned next steps for funding and other support measures. We hope ministers will continue to work with councils on this crucial agenda, because together we can achieve our shared ambitions on tackling homelessness.”

A dedicated £3.2m to support rough sleepers was announced by communities secretary Robert Jenrick in March. Three days later Julie James, the Welsh housing minister, announced a £10m ringfenced pot for Wales.

A source close to the process in Wales told Bureau Local that the limited funding offered to English councils, and the sudden demand that people be moved into accommodation over a single weekend, was puzzling. “It seemed more like a publicity stunt.”

And as the English government leaves questions unanswered about those living in the hotels, Scotland has brought forward plans to ensure people are moved into their own homes much more quickly. Holyrood has announced that from October, someone can only spend seven days in temporary accommodation before they must be moved to long-term accommodation.

“We know that providing people with a settled home, and the support they need, is the best way of solving homelessness. That’s why a rapid rehousing approach will remain our focus in the months ahead,” Kevin Stewart, the Scottish housing minister, told the Bureau.

The Bureau has also spoken to people given shelter during the lockdown about their situation.

Mark has been homeless for three years. He had shared a home with his father, but when he died Mark was unable to keep up with the rent. He slept in a car with no heating for months and last year began sleeping on night buses. 

Before the GLA announced plans to house all homeless people in hotels, Mark had anxiously watched the facilities he depended on closing one by one.

“When you’re homeless, even in a night shelter you rely upon certain services like McDonald’s and libraries and leisure centres,” he said. 

He was especially concerned by the closure of the community centre where he would normally get a shower and free food in the morning, and could stay warm in the day. Then the library shut too. “We were all finding that all the facilities were closing one by one and it was becoming extremely difficult.” 

His usual alternatives, trains and busses, meant risking infection.

EMPICS Entertainment
A homeless person's tent in London in March.

However, Mark was in a winter night shelter system operated by Glassdoor, and so was part of the first tranche of people accommodated in London.

“For me, this is fantastic,” he said over the phone from his hotel. For once he can avoid the stress of being permanently on the move, and can enjoy old hobbies like the guitar, and even learning music theory.

“It’s a bit more like normal life,” he said, “funnily enough, in a time when everyone else is not having a normal life.”

It is an improvement it would be devastating to lose.

“What a massive moment in time, that people who have potentially found it difficult to access services for years and years are now in a safe, secure place. There is such an opportunity to engage with those people,” said Sparkes.

“There is the appetite now for the public, local authorities and charities to continue to work together with the spirit that’s been achieved over the past few weeks.”  

The £97m figure quoted by Crisis allows for half of the 5,400 people currently in hotels needing Housing First accommodation, which is specialist housing with dedicated support, for example with addiction or long-standing mental health issues.

The rest are expected to need support to secure a tenancy, but of different intensities. Ultimately, Crisis estimates that spending £34m on housing benefit and £63m on support could move a huge number of Britain’s rough sleepers into real homes. 

However, even as work gets underway to produce an exit strategy for those in hotels, Sparkes cautioned against focusing solely on that group. The charity’s estimate does not account for people who are still on the streets, or those becoming homeless in the coming weeks.

“The big building blocks of ending homelessness; building lots more social homes, and a much more sympathetic welfare system, are still big asks that need answering,” he said.  

Barry Lewis via Getty Images
The entrance to Heal's Store in London last month – deserted but for homeless people's tents.

Sam Dorney-Smith, a nurse of 27 years, oversees the care of 350 people across two of the GLA’s hotels.

Having worked for 16 years in homeless healthcare, Dorney-Smith said that progress with clients depends upon engagement. With 200 people in a hotel, there is room for productive conversations to take place.

But the Bureau has heard that some of the contracts negotiated with London hotels are due to end on June 1 and July 1 and Dorney-Smith has not heard about any extensions. “It would seem incredibly self-defeating,” she told the Bureau, if the work did not continue.  

The GLA is trying to negotiate extensions to its hotel contracts and find the money to finance them.

A spokesperson said: “Negotiations about possible extensions are underway. Understandably, some hoteliers were awaiting announcements on the next stage of lockdown before entering into these negotiations.”

Alex Bax is the head of Pathway, which supports teams in hospitals across the UK working with homeless clients to get them accommodation and the support they need to keep it. He compared the low level of infection in the homeless population in the UK to the devastation seen in shelters across the US. He believes that taking the public health approach of cohorting Britain’s rough sleepers has saved lives.

But, he added, there was still work to be done to ensure the system is better after Covid-19 than before.

“The system has shown that in a crisis we can get hundreds of people off the street really fast. So now we need to seize this opportunity and support every single one of them to move on to somewhere better.”

Dorney-Smith said she was encouraged by the appointment of Dame Louise Casey to head up a new homeless taskforce charged with ensuring that rough sleepers housed during the crisis will move into long-term accommodation once lockdown is over.

Dame Louise is no stranger to this issue, having been the head of Tony Blair’s Rough Sleepers Unit in 1999. But today, the numbers are very different. There are more than two and a half times as many homeless people today as there were before 2010 – and that’s just counting street homelessness. 

Dorney-Smith would like to see occupational therapists and immigration and housing lawyers working in the hotels, in order to get the process of moving people on underway. (She added that ten more nurses would also be helpful, if unlikely – there was already a shortage of homeless health staff before the pandemic.)

She cautioned that moving people into permanent homes would be complex. The hotel scheme, she said, had unearthed “hidden people” whose rights, and mental and physical needs would take time to untangle.

But for some, a long-term solution feels within reach. Back in his room, Mark said he believed a positive outcome was coming his way. He had just seen a support worker who told him: “Whatever happens, we won’t be abandoning you any time soon.” 

“That gives you a bit of reassurance. I feel more reassured by that,” he said. A lot of people’s hopes are riding on “everyone in” being a lasting promise. 

With reporting by Kathy Bailes (Isle of Thanet News), Tom Bristow (Archant), Julia Gregory (My London Online), and Alice Milliken (freelance journalist and researcher).