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Huddled in a doorway in her sleeping bag, Nicola felt frightened and tried to tell herself it wouldn’t be forever – that she wasn’t alone in facing such a daunting situation.
The 48-year-old had been homeless for seven years after escaping domestic violence but this year was the first time she had actually slept rough, having spent the time sofa surfing.
However, when the coronavirus pandemic hit and she could no longer sleep at other people’s houses, she suddenly found herself plunged into street homelessness, culminating in her sleeping in a doorway in Oldham, Greater Manchester.
“I had a van so I slept in that for a few weeks,” Nicola told HuffPost UK. “But then it got stolen when I wasn’t in it so I ended up sleeping in a doorway which was set back off the road.
“It was the first time I had slept out on the street and it was really frightening for me.”
Life changed dramatically for Nicola when the coronavirus lockdown hit and communities Secretary Robert Jenrick announced £3.2m of initial funding to help rough sleepers to self-isolate.
The funding was made available to all local authorities in England to reimburse them for the cost of providing accommodation and services for those sleeping on the streets, though councils have stated it is “insufficient”.
On March 26 – three days after Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown – MP Luke Hall, minister for local government and homelessness, wrote to local authorities across the UK asking them to house every rough sleeper by the end of the weekend.
Since the lockdown began, around 15,000 people who were on the streets or at risk of sleeping rough have been given emergency accommodation.
For Nicola, who had been sleeping in the doorway for four nights, life changed very quickly and she describes suddenly having her own room at the YHA Manchester Hostel as “like a fairytale”.
“I felt like a celebrity,” admitted Nicola. “Having my own room with a shower was like heaven. I hadn’t had my own room in years.”
And it was the simple things that have meant the most to Nicola. “It’s things like being able to brush your teeth and have a mirror,” she said. “I felt so grateful for the little things that other people take for granted.
“Having a mirror has also been wonderful. I never had a mirror when I was sleeping rough so I had no idea what I looked like – apart from when I looked in the wing mirror of my van.”
I felt like a celebrity. Having my own room with a shower was like heaven.Nicola, 48, who went from sleeping in a doorway to living in a hotel room during the pandemic
Nicola has spent five weeks at the YHA hotel, where she is provided with all her meals. “We have all been treated with such dignity and respect,” she said. “It has just been so lovely to feel normal again and be given help and support.
“I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to feel safe and secure and know that I won’t go hungry.”
However, all that will be coming to an end imminently for Nicola and thousands of other homeless people across the country, as contracts between hotels and local authorities are coming to an end - with some due to close by the end of this week.
Homelessness organisations and charities are urging action to be taken to rehome people in more permanent accommodation and are adamant that the emergency housing of rough sleepers should not just be a “temporary fix”.
The YHA Manchester Hostel will be closing to rough sleepers on Friday June 26. Across the country, different hotels have varied dates for when the contracts close, but it will be over the next few weeks.
Nicola told HuffPost UK she is hoping her glimpse into a “normal life” at the hotel will be the turning point she needs to turn her life around.
“It’s things like being able to brush your teeth and have a mirror. I felt so grateful for the little things people take for granted.Nicola, 48, who went from sleeping in a doorway to living in a hotel room during the pandemic
While sofa surfing, Nicola bought an eco friendly tuk tuk which she converted so she could sell food from the back of it. She sold specialty coffees, breakfasts, sandwiches and curries in the town centre. She was in a better place mentally, but struggled to get support without a postcode.
“I was still trading and working, but then Covid-19 hit and it was game over for my business,” Nicola added. “I had no business, no customers and nowhere to sleep.”
At first, Nicola slept in her van. But after it was stolen and then retrieved, she was financially ruined and could not afford insurance, so sold it.
“My business slipped through my fingers,” she said.
The YHA Manchester Hostel where Nicola has been staying has 37 rooms but they have housed a maximum of 39 people during the coronavirus lockdown as there have been some couples.
Nicola says it has been “like a safe haven” and that while there have been a variety of characters with different things going on in their lives, they have all been respectful and have thought how lucky they are.
“Being here has eased my anxiety and having a routine and structure has helped me get back on an even keel,” she said.
“Even though the coronavirus pandemic has been awful in so many ways, for me, it has brought some positivity and I hope it will get me to a better place in my life so I can move forward.
“I am a humble person and I just want to turn my life around and am determined to do it. Being in this hotel room has given me a footing and now I want to stand on my own two feet.”
Nicola is moving into temporary accommodation initially and will then be helped to find somewhere more permanent to live.
She added: “My dream is to get a place of my own, have a postcode and get my business back up and running and then work hard to earn a living and have a future.”
Dave Batchelor, works for the charity Depaul UK, which helps people who are homeless, vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Batchelor has been team leader at the YHA Manchester Hostel, managed by Depaul UK and is the rough sleeping pathway manager for the North West. He told HuffPost UK that the aim of the scheme was to get the most vulnerable in society off the streets so they could isolate and remain safe.
He said that while some people had been sleeping rough for a couple of years, others were relatively new to the streets – and some found themselves homeless as a direct result of the pandemic.
“Becoming homeless and ending up on the streets can happen to anybody, especially in these circumstances,” he said. “People can’t go to stay with family and friends as they are shielding and the pandemic means agencies are not able to respond in the way they normally can.
“We had one person who was in the midst of travelling between two countries and became trapped in Manchester with nowhere to live because of the lockdown.
“Another person was working in France and had to leave when coronavirus hit and made his way back to the UK. He had given up his accommodation here when he went to work in France so had nowhere else to go.
“There have also been people who had their accommodation tied to their jobs so when they lost their job due to this crisis, they lost their place of living too.
“We also took in people who were previously sleeping in night shelters but needed a room of their own so they could isolate.”
Batchelor said that while many people hold stereotypes about homeless people being alcoholics and drug addicts, many rough sleepers don’t use any substances.
Initially, the hotel provided people with meals they could heat up in the microwave but they now have a full kitchen and a furloughed chef cooking a huge variety of meals, as well as volunteers working in the kitchen behind the scenes.
“My aim from the beginning was that it should feel like a home,” said Batchelor. “If people feel marginalised and not treated in the way all humans should be, that can have a negative effect.
“We are running it like a hotel as much as we can and people have their rooms cleaned regularly and they are getting home cooked meals prepared by the chef including things like duck, pulled pork, fresh salads and cakes made from ingredients donated by Fareshare.
“Homelessness is not just about not having somewhere to live. It is about the safety and security that comes with that and knowing someone is there and cares for you.
“Normally, projects like this would take years to get going. This was created in a matter of days.”
Batchelor told HuffPost UK they are working with local authorities and social housing providers to find people move-on accommodation once the hotel closes to rough sleepers.
“We need to capture what we have done and keep doing it by finding shortcuts to help people,” he said. “It is a bit like when someone leaves school – if there is no follow up support, they will find life really difficult.
“It is important that this is not a temporary fix and that people don’t get forgotten about.”
We need to capture what we have done and keep doing it by finding shortcuts to help people. It is a bit like when someone leaves school – if there is no follow up support, they will find life really difficult.Dave Batchelor, team leader at the YHA Manchester Hostel
Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester Mayor, told HuffPost UK that at the start of the crisis, 1,000 homeless people who needed help were identified. However, over the last few months, there have been 1,900 placements, and 820 homeless people are currently living in hotels.
He says that while the Everyone In scheme has achieved incredible change in a short space of time, the next steps are very important to prevent it becoming “everyone back out” or “many people back out.”
Why can’t we do this in normal times when the system isn’t stressed and when in theory we’ve got more capacity or funding to do it? Everyone In has got to be the right policy for always, not just for a pandemic.Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester Mayor
“What strikes me about this is how when everyone says: ‘Right, this is the priority, get this done’, how quickly change can happen,” he said. “It is a bit frustrating. Why can’t we do this in normal times when the system isn’t stressed and when in theory we’ve got more capacity or funding to do it?
“Everyone In has got to be the right policy for always, not just for a pandemic.”
A Bed Every Night, Greater Manchester’s programme for ending the need for rough sleeping across 10 boroughs, will begin a new phase in July to support vulnerable people post-pandemic.
There will be 445 beds across the boroughs as a transition for those currently living in hotels and other accommodation.
Burnham says the beds will not be their usual Bed Every Night provision as they will be Covid-safe shelters to allow social distancing. But he admits there is not enough to cover demand so they will be looking to the government and the head of its specialist task force Dame Louise Casey for support.
He said he wants to see a Housing First policy to allow people to change their lives. “Without the bedrock of housing, you cannot deliver good healthcare to people,” he said. “If you deliver healthcare, then send them back to the streets, what you are putting into their healthcare is wasted in many ways.
“The same is true of education and other forms of public services and support. The catastrophic failure that comes with rough sleeping around mental health and personal safety and addiction and all kinds of other issues is huge.
“If you are in the same bed, in the same place having your needs met on an ongoing basis, that creates a foundation that makes change possible for life.”
Burnham says that while the government’s announcement about creating 6,000 new housing units with 3,300 available in the next 12 months is welcome, what is needed is an immediate solution so people don’t end up rough sleeping again.
Hannah Gousy, head of policy for Crisis, the national charity for homeless people, said it is a “matter of life and death” for rough sleepers as contracts between hotels and local authorities approach their end.
“We are facing a cliff edge of people potentially facing returning to sleeping rough,” she said. “We have been speaking to people who have spent time sleeping rough and they are terrified of having to return to that situation.
“Sleeping rough is dangerous anyway, but in the context of a global pandemic, that risk is intensified.
“The government and local authorities have done incredible work in getting homeless people into hotels and this will have undoubtedly saved lives over the last few months.
“We are now at a crossroads and need to use this as a springboard to get them into accommodation for good – or we face the devastating prospect of 15,000 people returning to the streets.
“This needs to be an important starting point to move people into permanent accommodation.”
We have been speaking to people who have spent time sleeping rough and they are terrified of having to return to that situation.Hannah Gousy, head of policy for Crisis
Gousy added that it was essential for the government to provide emergency legal provision to ensure everyone has access to emergency accommodation during the rest of the pandemic as she said it is currently down to the discretion of local authorities.
Polly Neate, chief executive of housing and homelessness charity Shelter, told HuffPost UK: “We cannot allow all the progress made to be stripped back now, and thousands tipped back onto the street while the crisis continues.
“As we see in our services day in and day out, most people become homeless because they are forced out of their homes and cannot find anywhere else they can afford.
“The bottom line is that people who have no option but to sleep on the street should have somewhere safe and secure to live, regardless of the pandemic.
“To make this a reality, the government must direct councils to provide accommodation and support to everyone who needs it and give them the funding to do so.
People who have no option but to sleep on the street should have somewhere safe and secure to live, regardless of the pandemic.Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter
“We stand ready to work with them to make this happen. And if the government is serious about eradicating homelessness, it must tackle the root causes – that means investing in a new generation of genuinely affordable social homes.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government told HuffPost UK that councils, charities and the hotel industry had made huge efforts to help provide emergency accommodation.
“Our new rough sleeping task force will ensure as many people as possible who have been brought in off the streets in this pandemic do not return to sleeping rough,” they said.
“We have accelerated plans for new rough sleeping services – backed by £433m – which will deliver 6,000 homes.
“We’ve been clear councils must continue to provide safe accommodation to all vulnerable rough sleepers and support those moving on from emergency accommodation.”
The department said it had provided £3.2bn of additional funding for councils to help them continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and support their communities – including helping rough sleepers.
It said it had committed £606m in 2020 to 2021 to help rough sleepers, which is a £238m increase in funding from the previous year.