6 July 2020

When the pandemic took hold in the UK, hotels which had earlier been full of holiday-makers and business travellers began to empty. Soon, though, the rooms were filled with new guests: 15,000 homeless people.

As part of “Everyone In”, an emergency operation by the Government to protect rough sleepers from coronavirus, 90 per cent of them were moved into Holiday Inns, Travelodges, Ibis hotels and smaller venues in the first few weeks. The Government paid for block bookings of rooms, and charity workers and volunteers helped in the hotels.

Dominic Williamson, the executive director of strategy and policy at St Mungo’s charity, says that this early action by the Government was critical. “That will have saved lives,” he tells i.

So far, the scheme has worked in terms of protecting vulnerable rough sleepers from coronavirus – with very few cases in the hotels – and it has also allowed for a period of stability. Neil Parkinson, a senior caseworker at homeless charity Glassdoor, says the hotel scheme has been “a dramatic shift” for the rough sleepers.

“A lot of guests at our night shelters spend a lot of their time finding where they can wash, where they can get food, where to sleep.” Having easy access to a shower, a bed and meals has meant they have had time and help to attempt complex admin, something that is so hard to do when you are focused on simply surviving. Some have begun to address their substance misuse. The biggest thing of all, says Mr Parkinson, is access to WiFi. 

Without the internet it is extraordinarily hard to even attempt to get a roof overhead, or apply for settled status or whatever they need.The hotels have been impressively peaceful, say charities, but there have been some problems with people being asked to leave due to anti-social behaviour. Others have left because they could not cope with the change.

Yet for many, this has been a period of unprecedented respite. However, time is running out. Some authorities have already begun moving rough sleepers out of hotels. The Government has only paid for the rooms for a certain amount of time – and it is unclear how long the scheme will last. Soon the business travellers and tourists will return. So what happens next?

More time and more clarity

The Government has now announced funding of £105m to support rough sleepers and those at risk of homelessness into tenancies of their own, including “through help with deposits for accommodation, and securing thousands of alternative rooms already available and ready for use, such as student accommodation”.

The money is welcome, charities say, but it is not enough, and caseworkers need more time to help people find a safe option. “We’d love some clarity about how people can carry on being supported,” says Mr Parkinson. “There’s a very real risk of people being in hotels one day, and under a bridge the next.” Of the 2,700 people St Mungo’s has been working with in hotels, they’ve managed to move on 300 – the work takes time.

The pandemic has kept people off the streets for a while, but it’s also the catalyst for what Gavin Yates, CEO of Homeless Action Scotland, believes in the next six months will be “the greatest explosion of homelessness since the 1980s”.

There was already a homelessness crisis across the UK, and now a recession, jobs losses and more cuts to vital services means things will be harder than ever. “As our lockdown in Scotland starts to be removed,” says Mr Yates, “many people are starting to contact the local authority saying: ‘I’m homeless, please help me’.” Scotland, unlike England, has a legal responsibility to house people, but it will put “immense” pressure on the local authorities.

What is clear is that the “Everyone In” scheme was crucial, but it missed swathes of young homeless people, of whom 40 per cent have slept rough. Their homelessness is often different: they sleep in unsafe spaces, use dating apps to get somewhere to stay for the night with a stranger, or sofa surf until they run out of contacts.

“The Government’s rhetoric for the past year has focused on rough sleepers,” says Abigail Gill, policy and research manager at Centrepoint, a charity which helps homeless 16- to 25-year-olds. “I imagine if they can reduce the amount of visible homelessness then the public may believe it’s been tackled.”

Data show that young people are likely to be hardest hit by unemployment, and many of them are in at-risk hospitality and retail jobs. “We are really worried about this being the start of the homelessness crisis of Covid, not the end,” says Ms Gill. Paul Brocklehurst, who manages the Centrepoint helpline, had a 50 per cent increase in calls when lockdown began.

June has been the busiest ever month. The biggest cause of youth homelessness is family breakdown, and there has been plenty of that in the pressure cooker of lockdown; more domestic violence, worse mental health, complex households becoming even more complex. “The teenagers have to leave incredibly toxic homes for their own safety,” says Ms Gill, but they have nowhere to go, because the local authorities are so stretched.”

Research by St Mungo’s shows that across England £1bn a year less is being spent on services for the homeless. Yet the Government pulled the stops out when emergency struck. “Many of us would say there was always enough money to do something about this,” says Mr Williamson, “and it was the political will that was needed. We’ve now seen the political will, but it’s not enough. It doesn’t tackle some of the issues that need to be resolved if we are really going to make an impact on homelessness.”

And what would make the biggest impact? The answer is unanimous: social housing.

“We need a cross-party consensus across England, Scotland and Wales to build houses for the next 20 or 30 years,” says Mr Yates. “Boris Johnson’s latest ‘build, build, build’ is about infrastructure, roads, offices, superfast broadband. And all that is great, but the most important thing any government can do is build social housing.

“Every time you build a house someone can actually afford to live in, you make them less worried, you give them more ability to take part in the community. Now we’re on the brink of a new homelessness crisis – but it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Source: iNews