Before the UK entered lockdown in March 2020, there were already discussions around how the spread of COVID-19 would impact some of the most vulnerable people in our society. There was an acute awareness not only of the significant levels of homelessness in our towns and cities but that the number of people who needed support was growing at an alarming rate. Strategies for prevention and outreach programmes to help break the cycle of homelessness through a network of support systems for homeless people were helping to a certain extent in some areas, but the problem was (is) chronic and the concern among people who worked in, and had experience of, the sector in relation to the potential impact of COVID-19 was growing.
Homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic
Surprisingly though, in many areas the response to support the UK’s homeless populations was swift, definitive and all encompassing. Partnerships were formed with local hotel chains – the GLA partnership with multiple hotel groups as part of the Pan London Placement scheme is probably the best publicised but individual arrangements have sprung up across the country and people were moved from the street into accommodation which was self-contained and would allow them to effectively isolate if they showed any symptoms of COVID-19.
In March, minister Robert Jennick announced £3.2 million of funding for councils to help them protect local rough sleepers from the pandemic and MHCLG, councils, the voluntary sector and those who work within homelessness outreach specifically have all mobilised to form an effective network of support for many people who had previously been sleeping on the streets.
The response to moving those who were sleeping rough off the streets has been unprecedented, as is the volume of people who have been helped. Many people have been accommodated regardless of their “local connection” or their “recourse to public funds”, something which previously was a significant barrier to many people being housed in temporary accommodation by their local authority.
A new wave of homelessness?
However despite the significant progress made, there are growing concerns about a “second wave of homelessness”- people who become homeless off the back of the stagnation and collapse of some areas of the economy, particularly those in low paid and precarious work i.e. hospitality and retail sector. Additionally, there are signs that some especially vulnerable groups have not engaged with the process or that some people have became homeless after the initial offer of support was rolled out. These include people from migrant backgrounds, and people with acute and severe mental ill health.
Things can’t go back to the way they were
One thing is clear, according to professionals, things can’t be allowed to return to the way they were. In some instances this is for practical reasons, and in other instances because we have been able to see what it is possible to achieve when people co-operate and there is a collective will to progress.
The use of communal shelters, one of the main ways of delivering emergency accommodation for many years may have to stop, or at least be re-organised to avoid multiple people sharing facilities like bathrooms or sleeping in rooms with multiple beds. A move towards more “pod style” contained living may be a way forward, but it will take a shift in design to accommodate people safely in the future.
The response has shown that it is vital to develop links between housing and health, and that the integration of services with public health to create wrap-around care (which is something which is currently being co-ordinated in response to the pandemic) should be maintained going forward.
The pandemic response has also shown that multiple organisations can work well effectively together and that the red tape, perceived layers of bureaucracy and challenges of different ways of working can be overcome if there is collective understanding and will. These barriers can be overcome to create really effective and much needed services and support for some of our most vulnerable citizens.
Concerns have been raised around future funding, and in particular the risks of funding being stopped abruptly or the supply being removed at short notice, for example if hotels re-open and councils then struggle to identify appropriate accommodation for people to transition into. The sector has stressed that councils should be planning for this transition phase to prevent people returning to the streets and dis-engaging with services.
Opportunities to learn lessons
At an online event hosted by the Centre for London, which brought together professionals from within the sector in London to reflect on the response to COVID-19, somewhat surprisingly, the atmosphere was one of optimism that this could be the start of a new way of working. There is hope that a “can do” and “get things done attitude” which had been catalysed by the need for urgency because of the spread of COVID-19 can be harnessed and that this mindset should be embedded into practice going forward.
One of the main questions that appears to be raised is, if we can do it now, with such urgency, why couldn’t we do it before, and what steps need to be taken to ensure that the collective will and the government support doesn’t disappear post COVID-19? This is something local authorities, homeless outreach groups and other partners will have to grapple with over the coming weeks and months.
The response to the pandemic has been unprecedented. It has shown that with understanding, flexibility and effective partnership working to deliver coordinated services (as well as appropriate supply and funding) that tackling homelessness, or at least offering more to our homeless communities in terms of effective long term support, can be achieved.
There is a collective sense within the sector that the steps forward taken as a result of this pandemic should not be allowed to regress in the future, but should be strengthened and built upon to provide more effective support going forward for homeless communities across the UK.
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