10 June 2020

London councils are spending an extra £50 million on homelessness and rough sleeping during the Covid-19 pandemic, say councillors, in a stark warning to central government that more support is needed to stop people returning to the streets.

The cross-party group has declared that there can be “no return to business as usual” after 4,450 rough sleepers were taken off London’s streets for their own protection from the virus and moved into emergency accommodation back in March.

That move has encouraged councillors to believe that now can be “a golden opportunity” to end rough sleeping altogether.

But with the future of the Everybody In scheme responsible for moving people off the streets still to be clarified beyond the end of the month, London Councils are calling for more support from Westminster to help them prevent a new homelessness crisis.

Before the pandemic, London was already dealing with the most severe homelessness crisis in England, accounting for two-thirds of rough sleeping in the country while councils in the English capital were spending £1bn annually to cover their homelessness and rough sleeping provision.

Action taken during the pandemic has boosted that bill by £50m, adding to costs that were already considered unsustainable. In October last year, a London School of Economics study found that around £200m of the boroughs’ £919 million annual expenditure on homelessness and rough sleeping was not covered by government grants or housing income with general funds bridging the gap.

To ensure that a lack of cash doesn’t scupper the progress made in getting people off the streets during the pandemic, London Councils’ executive member for housing and planning Cllr Darren Rodwell is leading calls for an immediate boost to local authority funding.

The Government announced £433m of accelerated funding for Dame Louise Casey’s Rough Sleeping Taskforce to work with councils over four years to secure safe long-term homes for rough sleepers currently housed in hotels.

But, with the money yet to be allocated, London boroughs are concerned that this cash will not meet the current demand for housing.

They also want a 12-month suspension of No Recourse to Public Funds restrictions so they can stop people who have no access to benefits from returning to rough sleeping. Currently, London Councils are accommodating at least 900 people who are subject to NRPF restrictions.

Elsewhere, the cross-party group is calling for welfare policy changes, including lifting the benefit cap and abolishing the local housing allowance shared accommodation rate for single applicants under 35 as well as a phased lifting of lockdown measures to avoid a cliff edge that sees rough sleepers return to the streets. 

“There can be no return to business as usual on homelessness. We now have a golden opportunity to tackle homelessness and end rough sleeping altogether, if we sustain and build on the progress made in response to Covid-19,” said Cllr Rodwell.

“Chronic housing insecurity leaves people more vulnerable to illness, which is why the government was right to introduce a ban on evictions and to help fund emergency accommodation for rough sleepers. This has kept people safe, protected public health, and brought much-needed stability for many vulnerably housed Londoners.

“But we can’t afford to squander these achievements. Without ongoing measures to help keep people in their homes, we expect homelessness rates to shoot back up again – probably to even higher levels than before the crisis.”

The Government has been clear from the start of the pandemic when they moved rough sleepers into hotels that they would commit to ensuring that they would not return to the streets.

Dame Casey’s taskforce is central to those plans and she will work closely with councils. Local authorities in England received £3.2 million in targeted funding to house rough sleepers during the pandemic. That was alongside a further £3.2 billion to help councils respond to their communities’ needs with some of that earmarked for rough sleeping work.

Announcing the £433m funding for the taskforce, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “This is an unprecedented commitment – the most ambitious of its kind and the single biggest injection of specialist accommodation since the Rough Sleeping Initiative began.

“This will be completely transformative and changes the lives of thousands of rough sleepers for the better.”

But Cllr Rodwell is clear that the Government money and action must come quickly to prevent more people heading to the streets than ever before.

He added: “A summer spike in homelessness would be extremely damaging to London boroughs’ finances. Even before the crisis, boroughs weren’t receiving enough funding to meet their homelessness costs. We’re now spending an extra £50 million on homelessness and rough sleeping due to Covid-19 – an unsustainable situation has become even more unsustainable.

“London boroughs share the government’s ambitions on reducing homelessness – but action is needed now.”

Source: The Big Issue