21 April 2020

For now they have no names and little is known about their backgrounds. But the Observer has established that at least six homeless people linked to hostels in London have died from coronavirus since March, triggering fears that outbreaks in crowded facilities with vulnerable people in poor health sharing bathrooms, dining rooms and even bedrooms could be catastrophic.

The six are thought to be the first known homeless victims of the virus in the UK. While most rough-sleepers and people staying in large dormitories in emergency night shelters have been moved into hotels by councils, up to 35,000 people may still be in homeless hostels across the UK.

The initial results of a survey by the UCL Collaborative Centre for Inclusion Health reveal the coronavirus death rate of homeless people living in London’s hostels is 25 times higher than the general adult population. It found that 38% of hostels in the capital had suspected Covid-19 cases, with 41% of sick residents sharing bathrooms with other residents and 35% of affected hostels still using communal dining rooms. At least 17 residents have been admitted to hospital with more serve symptoms since March.

Modelling by UCL indicates this grave situation could worsen unless the government scales up testing and removes infected residents from shared hostels to special facilities. The model, set to be released next week, predicts up to 12,000 hospital admissions and 900 deaths of homeless people in England over the next three to four months if no action is taken.

Professor Andrew Hayward, one of the centre’s directors, claimed the government had failed to publish and implement the plans that he had helped prepare for the Ministry of Housing to test hostel residents with symptoms and move those who could not self-isolate to special facilities in empty hotels.

“This leaves the homeless sector with no plan of action and no central government guidance on how to reduce the threat of outbreaks or respond to outbreaks,” he said. “Hostels are doing their best in difficult circumstances by intensifying cleaning and enforcing social distancing but they cannot contain all the risks. There is a real danger we will see explosive outbreaks in hostels, with large numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.”

He said the government appeared more concerned with the cost of his plan than the risks to a very vulnerable population. “I’m worried that this decision is driven more by a concern that we can’t afford to ramp up the capacity to accommodate homeless people in special facilities than the risk of infection in hostels,” he said.

The UCL centre has helped set up a small 60-bed facility for homeless people in an empty hotel in east London, with funding from the NHS and the Greater London Authority. But Hayward said it needed urgently to be expanded and replicated in other cities.

“We have already had 23 admissions and it only opened last week – it could be full by the end of next week,” he said. “We need to move people out of hostels when there is a high transmission risk. If we don’t take this kind of action, we could see many more preventable deaths.”

There are few details of the homeless lives claimed by the virus – and most experts expect the actual death toll to be much higher. One charity said an elderly man, who was staying in a large London hostel, tested positive and died in the hospital after the UK lockdown was imposed on 23 March. Other victims included a well known former hostel resident who contracted coronavirus on the streets.

Homeless charity St Mungo’s has assessed 70% of 1,200 people in its hostels and supported housing, with about 4% showing coronavirus symptoms. Dominic Williamson, St Mungo’s director of policy and strategy, said he knew of least two suspected deaths from coronavirus.

“One was in our services in London. The other was sleeping rough,” he said. “The action that has been taken by our services has helped minimise the issue so far but it is still early days.” He added that sick residents were being helped to self-isolate within the charity’s 49 hostels across the south of England, with those most at risk moved out to hotels.

Other charities have experienced clusters of suspected cases. The Single Homeless Project said there had been 19 suspected cases in its 32 London hostels, which accommodate 600 rough sleepers.

Toni Warner, SHP’s director of services, said she was fearful of further outbreaks. “It’s very difficult to keep people separate and within their rooms,” she said. About 30% of the charity’s hostel residents needed to be shielded because they had chronic health issues. “Some are going into hotels,” she said. “We are also allocating space within hostels to isolate vulnerable people but it is not easy.”

Housing association Look Ahead said there had been at least one suspected coronavirus case in all 10 of the homeless hostels it runs in London and Kent. Megan Reynolds, the association’s deputy director of operations, said larger outbreaks would be devastating. “If there was a severe outbreak in a hostel, it could be catastrophic,” she said.

The association has moved some of its most vulnerable residents but hundreds were still living in shared hostels. “A lot of our hostels were built many years ago. They have narrow corridors. The toilets, showers and communal spaces are used by multiple people,” she said. “It is not always easy for rough sleepers with mental health disorders or learning difficulties to follow rules on social distancing.”

A government spokesperson said: “Over 90% of people sleeping rough, including those in communal places like night shelters, who were known to local authorities at the start of the crisis have now been made offers of safe accommodation.”

‘I didn’t want to pass the virus on’

When former rough sleeper Mohammed Jouda started coughing at work, he went back to his shared flat linked to the 154-bed YMCA hostel in north London. “I had trouble breathing and I had a fever,” he said. “I felt really bad.”

The next day, Jouda, 38, who has asthma, called 111 and was diagnosed with coronavirus. He did what he could to stay out of the way of the two other men in the flat. “I didn’t want to pass the virus to them but it’s very difficult when you share a kitchen and bathroom. I have to eat and go to the toilet sometimes.”

He found it increasingly hard to breathe and called an ambulance. “They found me lying in the bed and gave me oxygen,” he said. “I was worried I might pass away.”

The YMCA hostel moved him into a self-contained room in the main hostel when he came back from the nearby Whittington hospital. Jouda, who became homeless when he was evicted and ended up sleeping in a park, was readmitted to hospital 10 days later, where he recovered from the virus. Although he is well now, he is worried he might be reinfected in his shared flat. “I’ve heard that people who have had coronavirus can get it again.”

Source: The Guardian