Rough sleepers will die unless the government urgently repeats its Everyone In scheme that protected thousands of homeless people during the first wave of the pandemic, campaigners have warned.
Homelessness organisations and charities are calling for the thousands of people on the streets during the third lockdown to be given emergency accommodation.
As Boris Johnson orders everyone to “stay at home” in a bid to combat soaring coronavirus infection numbers and deaths, some of the nation’s most vulnerable people are still waiting to hear if they’ll be given refuge from the new, more infectious strain of Covid-19 .
Back in March when the outbreak plunged the country into its first lockdown, communities secretary Robert Jenrick announced £3.2 million in emergency funding to help rough sleepers to self-isolate and prevent the spread of coronavirus amongst homeless communities.
In a matter of days, the government’s Everyone In scheme enabled local authorities to place 90% of rough sleepers in emergency accommodation such as hotels and empty apartment blocks.
A study by the University College London found Everyone In prevented as many as 266 deaths and saved tens of thousands of some of the most vulnerable people across England from catching coronavirus.
A report by the i newspaper published on Tuesday claimed the government had confirmed homeless people would not be accommodated in emergency accommodation during the third lockdown.
When contacted by HuffPost UK, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) denied the claims and hinted that something could in fact be done to support rough sleepers.
If not, thousands of England’s most vulnerable people will be forced to risk coronavirus infection and freezing on the streets. For some, it could be a death sentence.
Jon Glackin, who runs outreach project Streets Kitchen, says he has witnessed a significant rise in rough sleepers across London since the start of the pandemic, people who missed out on Everyone In the first time round.
“We’re seeing hundreds of people on the streets every morning. It’s a really dark situation at the moment,” he tells HuffPost UK.
The economic fallout caused by Covid-19 will only exacerbate the problem; at a time when the UK faces a “tsunami of homelessness” with many jobless people forced onto the streets – many for the very first time in their lives.
The number of people sleeping rough is expected to rise dramatically in the coming months, as networks that people often rely on such as spare bedrooms and sofas of friends or family have been closed off because of lockdown measures and social distancing restrictions.
Communal dorm-style night shelters have almost all been shut since the start of the pandemic, as it is almost impossible to ensure a Covid-safe environment and as such could easily become centres of virus outbreaks – even with infection control measures in place. “All of this has created the perfect storm,” Glackin says.
In Westminster in central London, just minutes’ walk from the Houses of Parliament, he says the rise in the numbers of rough sleepers, as well as the closure of shops, has led to a shortage of cardboard in the area.
“That’s how dire things are right now. Cardboard provides that little bit of insulation between a sleeping bag and the icy cold, wet concrete. It keeps you dry and it can create a difference of a few degrees, which is life-saving.”
And if these extremely vulnerable people are not offered emergency housing as Covid-19 deaths surpass the thousand mark, some will almost certainly not survive until spring.
“People will die [if the government does not bring back Everyone In] – there’s no doubt about that,” Glackin warns. “There will literally be blood on Tories’ hands. They are going to kill people.”
Some campaigners have suggested using empty commercial buildings and office blocks in town and city centres as makeshift shelters this winter, while Glackin points out that the hotels that had previously offered shelter to the homeless community during the first wave remain empty.
“There are plenty of buildings and spaces where people could be housed safely. That part’s not the problem,” says Glackin. “There’s a simple solution sitting right in front of us – the buildings are there, the will is there, the communities are there.
“Nobody should sleep on the streets. People experiencing homelessness have been let down so many times. It took a pandemic for us to realise we could change this – and the government is just saying ‘fuck you’ to the homeless.”
We’re seeing hundreds of people on the streets every morning. It’s a really dark situation.Jon Glackin of Streets Kitchen
Following the third lockdown announcement, Jon Sparkes, chief executive of homelessness charity Crisis, said: “Hundreds of deaths were prevented in the first wave of the pandemic when emergency accommodation was provided to anyone rough sleeping. Since then thousands of people have become street homeless.
“Now with the transmissibility of the new variant substantially higher, so is the risk to life of people on the streets. We urge the government to repeat the same level of support provided at the start of the pandemic and again ensure lives are saved.
“While funding to support people rough sleeping into safe accommodation has continued, it has been restricted to specific regions and to people who are categorised as clinically vulnerable. This has excluded many people experiencing barriers to the healthcare system. Emergency accommodation must be urgently provided to all people rough sleeping, without exception.”
Shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire said it would be “shocking, and extremely irresponsible” if Everyone In was not repeated.
“One in 50 people in the UK have Covid-19, and rough sleepers are some of the most exposed in our society,” she said. “Labour has been calling for protection for rough sleepers for months.
“The government has asked everyone to stay at home, at the same time as they turn their back on people without a home. This broken promise will cost lives.”
An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We will do everything in our power to prevent people from finding themselves sleeping rough or homeless this winter, and that remains the policy of the government.
“The ongoing ‘Everyone In’ campaign is protecting thousands of lives. We’ve housed 29,000 vulnerable people; including supporting 19,000 into settled accommodation or with move on support. We’re ensuring councils and voluntary organisations have the tools and funding they need.
“We’re spending over £700m on homelessness and rough sleeping this year alone, including the £15m Protect Programme which provides extra support to areas that need it most and our £10m Cold Weather Fund. We’re investing a further £750m next year and will set out further measures to protect rough sleepers as soon as we can.”