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On March 26, MP Luke Hall, minister for local government and homelessness, wrote to local authorities across the UK and asked them to house every rough sleeper by the end of the weekend.
Three days had passed since Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown, and serious questions were being asked about what was being done to protect some of the country’s most vulnerable residents.
“Our strategy must be to bring in those on the streets to protect their health and stop wider transmission, particularly in hot spot areas,” he wrote, setting out six steps local authorities should take in order to protect the nation’s street homeless.
The announcement, which hit headlines the following morning, was met with widespread praise. A total of £3.2m of emergency support for homeless across England had already been announced 10 days earlier, but this new move represented a shift of unprecedented scale.
In fact, it was St Mungo’s, not the government, that first saw Covid-19 as an opportunity to get everyone off the streets. The homelessness charity ran with the idea two weeks before the government’s announcement.
“The demand hasn’t changed – it was always there – but what we’ve had is the opportunity to do something about it, and in a wholly innovative way,” explained the charity’s chief exec Howard Sinclair.
“We’ve been able to accommodate thousands of people in a way we couldn’t have dreamed of. We led on that opportunity and demonstrated it could work in London, which meant the government then said to everyone: ‘This is what you need to do.’
“It wasn’t in response to the government – it was a response to a real humanitarian situation where we just couldn’t allow people to stay on the streets.”
The government has since poured £3.2bn into local authorities in order to help them combat the challenges posed by coronavirus, with some of that money expected to fund rooms – largely in hotels and B&Bs – for rough sleepers so they have somewhere safe to self isolate.
In London alone, more than 1,000 people have been taken off the streets and housed in temporary accommodation. A spokesperson for the mayor of London said that at the start of the crisis there were an estimated 11,000 homeless people in London.
They added: “Up to 2,000 were either on the streets or in shelters – where sleeping is communal – so they are our priority and we now have more than 1,100 of those in City Hall funded accommodation.”
The vast majority of the remaining 900 are being helped by individual boroughs, who are operating their own programmes independently.
By April 19, 90% of rough sleepers had reportedly been offered a place to see through the crisis, according to housing secretary Robert Jenrick.
Of course, the number of people sleeping rough is not a static one, and it is feared that the conditions of lockdown – from people facing illegal evictions to those fleeing domestic violence – will lead to even more people on the streets.
A spokesperson for Bristol City Council, which has housed more than 200 homeless people since the start of the crisis, said: “We are not working in a static environment, and the Outreach Team and Street Intervention Service will connect with anyone who comes onto the street in order to help find them accommodation.
“Homelessness is very complex and not everyone wants to move into accommodation, but we will continue supporting people in the best ways possible.”
With an accurate number of those sleeping rough notoriously difficult to calculate, HuffPost UK contacted the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ask how the figure of 90% had been collated, and asked if this figure would be reviewed as the current situation continues.
A spokesperson from the department said local authorities across England were asked at the start of the crisis to provide an estimate of the total number of people sleeping rough and in accommodation with communal sleeping spaces, such as night shelters.
They added that officials were aware of a shifting population of rough sleepers, but did not clarify whether or not the figure of 90% would be updated in the weeks and months to come.
Staff at Streetlink, which operates an app, phone line and website allowing homeless people either to self-refer for help, or to be referred by a member of the public, have been inundated with alerts.
Between April 1 and April 22, 2019, the service received 2,271 – an average of 103 a day. A year later, that figure has increased by 70%, with a team of just six to eight staff and a couple of volunteers each day fielding an average of 177 calls every 24 hours.
Alerts from the public have risen by more than half (55%), but self-referrals from rough sleepers have have rocketed by 740%: a total of 462 from April 1 to April 22 this year.
A spokesperson told HuffPost UK this could be down to homeless people becoming more visible due to quieter streets, increased public concern about people sleeping rough, local authorities explicitly asking members of the public to refer homeless people through the site, and the closure of day centres and public toilets.
It’s a big spike in demand for a small team – but the bigger concern is the capacity of the services on the ground.
Council- and charity-run outreach teams, sometimes informed by Streetlink’s alerts, are the mechanism through which the government is expecting the homeless to be housed. They have limited numbers of staff, and councils have limited amounts of accommodation to offer those who need it.
“The key mistake is relying on a system that is broken to repair the system. It just can’t happen. Everything’s changed.
Grassroots organisations like Ealing Soup Kitchen and Streets Kitchen are concerned that rough sleepers – particularly those without a phone or who do not speak English – are going undetected.
Andrew Mcleay, manager at Ealing Soup Kitchen, explained: “By registering them with Streetlink you the assume these people are then accounted for, but in our experience that hasn’t always been the case.
“There are still people, even now, who have never been found by Streetlink or have had any contact with them. There are quite a number of people still out there who don’t speak English, which presents quite a problem to Streetlink and the outreach teams, because how would they even communicate with them without a translator?”
While there are practical issues with referral systems like Streetlink, the fact people are still out on the street is rooted in systemic issues, according to Jon Glackin of grassroots outreach service Streets Kitchen.
“The process is broken,” he said. “It doesn’t work. It works sometimes, but that’s not good enough – people are not getting through.
“The key mistake is relying on a system that is broken to repair the system. It just can’t happen. Everything’s changed.
“It’s shown that mutual aid groups and community groups are the backbones of communities at the moment. They’re keeping them alive.”
The stresses compounded by lockdown mean that even as local authorities are trying to house rough sleepers, more people are finding themselves suddenly homeless and with nowhere to go.
“A lot of people are being made homeless at the moment, through illegal evictions, backpacking hostels being closed, B&Bs being closed, sofa surfers being kicked out,” Glackin said.
“There’s a whole deluge of people hitting the streets. We’re seeing lots of new faces at our kitchens, which is very worrying.”
Hannah Gousy, head of policy at Crisis, said red tape was stopping vulnerable people – such as those fleeing domestic violence, or some groups of migrants – accessing safe emergency accommodation.
Gousy added: “We’re hearing examples of where local authorities are applying the legal tests within the homelessness legislation and that’s presenting as a big barrier for people moving into both emergency and permanent accommodation.
“In terms of what those legal barriers are, they could be denying someone assistance on the basis that they’re not able to prove they have local connections.
“It could also be denying people assistance because they’re not deemed to be a priority need. That could be women who are fleeing domestic abuse that aren’t deemed vulnerable enough to be in that category, and obviously that’s something we’ve seen a huge spike in during the coronavirus outbreak so we’re very, very concerned about that.”
The government explicitly said the “everyone in” initiative would cover every rough sleeper, whether they had recourse to public funds or not. But now, Gousy claimed, local authorities were now being instructed by government to reapply the “no recourse to public funds” criterion.
“No recourse to public funds” is a condition imposed on some migrants, meaning a person can’t access certain pots of public money.
The MCHLG said councils had been given flexibility to determine how they spent the cash, but were expected to meet their statutory duties.
A ‘dire situation’ for those left behind
A government spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “The effort to get rough sleepers off the streets during this crisis has been a success by any measure.
“Thanks to the close co-operation between government, councils and charities, thousands of rough sleepers are staying safe and following public health guidelines.”
While thousands of people have managed to find a safe place to self-isolate thanks to the scheme, organisations working with vulnerable people say many more hidden homeless are struggling as the services that support them are forced to adapt.
Mcleay said there were dozens of rough sleepers who had fallen through the gaps – with at least 30 known to the organisation.
“After the lockdown was announced and the government said they were going to house everybody, I started to put my number on a slip of paper inside the take away meal packages we do,” Mcleay explained.
“I must have had about 45 phone calls from people telling me that they were sleeping rough and hadn’t been offered anywhere to stay, and they were telling me about their friends too – so in all I had the names of about 60 people. A few weeks on, I would say there are still at least 30 people we know about without anywhere to shelter.
“There’s just no way of reaching these people – the outreach teams are so stretched, and already working in really difficult circumstances, that those people who are less visible, who can’t speak English or don’t have a phone, are just falling through the gaps.
“When this help doesn’t reach our clients they start to ask questions like: ‘Why not me?’ It’s hard not to feel like we’re failing people, like they’ve been promised something we can’t possibly deliver.”
Meanwhile, those without a roof over their heads have found themselves severed from many of the services – clean clothes, haircuts, showers, mental health support and socialisation – that made the demands of sleeping rough easier to cope with.
Without the patchwork of soup kitchens, libraries and shelters, many have been left with nowhere left to turn. For those who don’t speak English, or the many – usually older – rough sleepers without access to a phone or internet, the challenges are even greater.
Mcleay explained: “In ordinary times we offer showers, as do many other day centres across the capital – if someone really wanted to, they could probably wash every day. But now everything is closed, and people who are still on the streets have nowhere to go and are facing the prospect of going months without a shower.
“What sort of health problems will that bring up? How can we make sure these people are kept safe when some of them are completely cut off from the information they need? What we need to do just goes so, so far beyond putting people between four walls.
“Everyone’s trying their best, but social distancing measures mean we can’t do haircuts, we can’t clean clothes, we can’t allow people to gather or speak with the volunteers as they used to. Sometimes our sessions would be the only conversation a client had for a week, and now it’s gone.”
His concerns are echoed by organisations working with homeless people across the country, who have already seen those left out on the streets forced to accept serious risks to their health just to access basic needs like drinking water.
“I know of cases in Hackney of homeless people drinking toilet water because that was the only water they could get, from a public toilet without a working sink,” said Glackin.
“We’ve had to bring in loads of water because, remember, McDonald’s is closed, Burger King is closed, all the day services are closed, churches, most public toilets, everything’s closed. It’s a huge, dire, situation.”
It’s important to note that people are not just on the streets because they haven’t been found – outreach teams across the country are in touch with rough sleepers who, for a variety of complex reasons, have refused, or been unable to take up, offers of accommodation.
A spokesperson for Hackney Council said the local authority was aware of nine people still sleeping rough within its borders, all of whom were in touch with outreach services and had been offered accommodation.
They added: “The council has been talking to these residents over a long period of time and many of these entrenched rough sleepers have underlying physical and mental health problems, and substance- or alcohol-related problems.
“The availability of accommodation is not the primary factor for these residents remaining on the streets.”
Rebecca Rennison, Hackney’s deputy mayor and housing chief, said: “We had already placed more than 50 rough sleepers in safe, self-contained accommodation even before the government’s request. With an offer of accommodation in place for every person known to be sleeping rough in the borough, the vast majority of homeless people in Hackney are now safe off the streets and receiving food, healthcare and other support.
“But each individual has complex needs that will not be solved overnight and we continue to work with outreach organisations to help those who remain on the street take up offers of accommodation.”
Adapting to life ‘inside four walls’
The pledge to house the homeless through the crisis has given many their best chance at avoiding the virus. But the drastic change to what for some people has been a lifestyle for many years has posed its own challenges.
Mcleay said he knew of “at least five or six” people who had already been asked to leave accommodation after struggling to adjust to living within four walls, whilst others were facing difficulties with abrupt social isolation.
He said: “The council pays for hotel rooms to put these guys up in, but quite a few of them have already been kicked out and are on the streets now.
“They could have been misbehaving, but the whole point of this process was to make sure they weren’t infecting other people or getting infected themselves so by kicking them out you’re sort of invalidating that whole process. It’s a really difficult one, because for a lot of our clients hotels probably aren’t the right place to be.
“Some of these people have lived on the streets for years, and suddenly you’re putting them inside four walls and they’re cut off from those routines they’ve depended on to survive. It’s so hard, because they need to stay there to stay safe, but to isolate in that way goes against pretty much every instinct we have.”
Many day centres and outreach groups that typically provide supplies of food, a laundry service and mental health support have found themselves having to radically alter the way they work.
Free meals are being delivered to hotels, and takeaway services have replaced the traditional soup kitchens.
Under new regulations put in place for the lockdown certain business are subject to restrictions and closures – including restaurants and cafes – but services providing food or drink to the homeless are excluded from this directive.
Where mealtimes used to be a potential opportunity to help identify the needs of those on the streets, social distancing rules now mean rough sleepers have to take their food and quickly disperse.
HuffPost UK spoke to a number of groups, including Exeter-based St Petrock’s, which have started to deliver meals to hotels that are hosting clients, and are even providing support such as mental health sessions via Zoom.
Spokesperson Lucy Patrick said: “Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the way we work across our entire service, but particularly the workings of our day centre because people can’t just drop in anymore.
“We are providing daily takeaway services to the hotels and we also have support workers going in with to help with things like getting our clients’ clothes clean.
“With regards to our other survival services, things like the mental health clinic obviously can’t work as a drop-in any more, but we’re really pushing to advertise on our website the fact that this can be accessed through Zoom.”
In Exeter, as of April 24, there were 14 people recorded as living on the streets.
Since March 27, the council has accommodated 56 individuals or families, including people sleeping rough and those at rick of being on the streets, those released from prison, and people who have lost accommodation in the days since.
A spokesperson for Exeter City Council said 94% of known rough sleepers known to the city had been housed, with £88,180 being spent so far.
What happens when this is all over?
Weeks on from the government’s announcement, there’s still no clarity on what will happen when the lockdown lifts, or when the funding runs out. Organisations working with some of the most vulnerable people in society are seriously concerned that rough sleepers will be forced back out onto the streets.
Gousy said: “What we would be calling on the government to do is ensure there is a robust strategy in place so everybody who’s been housed during this period is made an offer of settled housing, so they’re not forced to return back to the streets or into homeless accommodation.
“Ensuring that people are made a priority for social housing, ensuring that people can access the private rented sector, will be absolutely vital.”
Sinclair shares the fear that lifting lockdown could see a significant rise in the number of people sleeping rough.
The St Mungo’s chief exec said: “We’re seeing more people going on to the streets than in normal times, and we need to figure out why.
“We need to get to those people swiftly and come to a way of finding solutions for them. My fear is that amid the economic difficulties and the unemployment we’ll see more and more people on the streets over the next few months.”
He explained that, when designated “severe weather” beds open up in the winter, 80% of those who come inside don’t return to rough sleeping. It is hoped that this crisis, too, could be an opportunity to help guide people away from the streets for good.
He added “We’ll work with each person to come up with a personal plan and then we’ll going back to local authorities, various statutory agencies and the government, and saying: ‘Right, this is what people need. You need to help us facilitate this.’”
The government hasn’t yet committed to any clear plan for homeless people once lockdown ends, and there are fears about the scale of the issue if everyone is put back out onto the streets at once.
A MHCLG spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “While local authorities continue to provide accommodation to those that need it, it is only responsible that we work with partners to consider how best to support the rough sleepers who have been moved into accommodation once the immediate crisis has been resolved.”
The government’s emphasis on housing the homeless has been welcomed by groups working with the community, but organisations from grassroots level to major nationwide charities have also called for more financial support to cope with the sheer scale of the issue.
Gousy said: “There are still a number of measures we’re going to need to see the government take in order to ensure it’s a full success.
“One of those things is to provide a dedicated funding stream for local authorities to procure the accommodation that’s needed, but also to provide the really vital support that’s needed for people once they get into that accommodation.
“There’s obviously been additional funding provided to local authorities but none of it has been specifically earmarked to work with people who are facing homelessness or to help with the ‘everyone in’ initiatives.
“We already know there are some local authorities that have used that wider pot of money to help support people who are facing homelessness, but there are some local authorities that haven’t. There’s no guarantee that without clear instructions from national government that funding will be used to support people who are facing homelessness right now.”
The national picture of how local authorities are dealing with coronavirus is a broad one, constantly shifting and adapting as this unprecedented situation moves inconsistently across the county.
In Leeds, 200 people have been housed since March 27 – which officials estimated represented around 74% of known homeless people in the city.
A spokesperson for the council said between 12 and 16 people were known to have refused offers of accommodation and were continuing to sleep rough, adding: “We are continuing to do everything possible to ensure that as many people as possible take up our offers of accommodation. This includes, with partners, working with and offering support to all those in need, including those who have turned down accommodation previously.”
Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, officials in Leeds have spent £477,000 on temporary housing – not just for rough sleepers, but also for those at risk of homelessness and people fleeing domestic violence.
Meanwhile in Newcastle, a sweep of the city undertaken by outreach teams had found no people sleeping rough over the course of a three-day period when responding to HuffPost UK’s enquiry on April 24.
A spokesperson for the city council said housing had been offered to six of the 14 people found rough sleeping since March 27. Four people were helped back to their accommodation, while four were supported “to be reconnected and housed in their area of accommodation”.
They added: “We are working with our commissioned providers to maintain our existing accommodation of 779 beds and also work alongside partner agencies across the city to try to prevent evictions and alleviate the additional pressures within the accommodation.
“In addition to this, we are planning ahead and looking at opportunities to source additional accommodation as demands and pressures grow and also to ensure we have the most appropriate accommodation to offer individuals as circumstances change.
In Liverpool, 130 households had been moved into “a range of accommodation options”, with around six rough sleepers still outside but in contact with outreach services.
Looking forward, a spokesperson for Liverpool City Council said: “The council is looking at options and will continually review them as and when the current situation changes. The money allocated for this programme is £300,000.”
The entire country has been plunged into a degree of uncertainty, but for some of the UK’s most vulnerable people the situation is worse than ever.
Organisations working on the ground have praised the government for their approach, but remain daunted at the sheer scale of the issues facing both themselves and the clients they work to protect.
As Glackin points out, for outreach charities everything has changed but the homelessness crisis. For those sleeping rough, coronavirus is just one more huge barrier.
“We were made in crisis,” he said. “We have always been involved in the homelessness crisis.
“In a way, that’s the benefit of these grassroots groups – they’re all fundamentally just dealing with crisis after crisis. We’re firefighting all the time.”