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Charities fear spike in homelessness as recession bites post-pandemic

18 December 2020

Pat Ashworth hears reports of a storm cloud that could break in the country


File photo, taken in January this year, of people walking past a rough-sleeper on a busy London pavement during the daytime

File photo, taken in January this year, of people walking past a rough-sleeper on a busy London pavement during the daytime

CHARITIES and professional bodies are concerned that the second wave of the coronavirus is tipping more people into homelessness as the recession bites, more jobs are lost, and rent arrears accumulate.

The Government won praise at the start of the pandemic for the swift action of the initiative Everyone In, when all rough-sleepers and those who could not safely self-isolate were moved into temporary Covid-19 emergency accommodation. One of the biggest challenges now facing local authorities is the ability to move those people into permanent and secure housing, an in-depth survey from the homelessness charity Crisis concluded last month.

The survey said: “The structural barriers that existed before the pandemic, including a lack of housing supply and a welfare system that does not address the underlying causes of homelessness, have been exacerbated during the pandemic. . . There is growing concern over funding to support a homelessness response in both the immediate and long-term future.”

The British Medical Association (BMA) is also warning that, as job-losses filter through society and domestic violence increases as a result of the pandemic, rates of homelessness will increase. It is supporting calls for emergency legislation that would place a 12-month duty on local authorities to enable everyone either sleeping rough or homeless and unable to self-isolate to have access to safe accommodation. That, it says, would prevent night shelters and hostels having to resort to reopening dangerous dormitory-style accommodation.

One positive development of Everyone In had been “remarkably few” Covid-19 deaths in the homeless population, the BMA said. No figures have been published yet for this year, but a report published by the Office for National Statistics on Monday showed that deaths among homeless people in England and Wales were already rising before the pandemic: there were an estimated 778 deaths in 2019, an increase of 7.2 per cent on 2018.

Charities point out that, since 2008, almost £1 billion has been cut from council spending on homelessness services every year. This money has not been replaced by the emergency coronavirus response. Government figures show that, at the end of June, 98,300 homeless households were living in temporary accommodation: an unprecedented rise of seven per cent in just three months. Between April and June, 63,570 households approached their local council and were found to be homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Shelter reported calls every minute last week to its emergency helpline: 65 per cent of those callers were already homeless or at risk of becoming so. Its chief executive, Polly Neate, has spoken of the threat of “a thundercloud of homelessness” which could break over the country, and has urged the Chancellor “to be as swift and bold on housing as we have seen him be on jobs”.

The Covid-19 crisis, she said, had magnified the housing emergency and exposed the deep cracks left by the chronic shortage of social homes. “A safe and stable home means everything right now; but we just don’t have enough of them, and people are suffering terrible consequences as a result,” she said. “If we don’t want the legacy of his pandemic to be one of lasting homelessness, then we need a Covid rescue plan for housing, and we need it now.

“By investing £12 billion over the next two years, the Government could build an extra 144,000 lower-cost homes, including 50,000 critically important social homes. These permanent homes could provide a way out of the misery of homelessness and temporary accommodation for thousands.”

Charities such as St Mungo’s are running operations to support the rough-sleepers who were moved into hotel accommodation. Individuals, businesses, trusts and foundations, and community organisations are combining to deliver critical supplies such as food, drink, clothing, and PPE. St Mungo’s is managing 27 hotels, and, since March, has helped 2914 people sleeping rough to isolate safely.

Its head of outreach, Kathleen Sims, said that people who had been on the streets for 20 years, and had always refused help, were finally taking advantage of it. “They understood that we are here for their needs, because that is our guiding principle: we don’t ever give up.”

Councils were given £10 million in cold-weather payments in October to help to keep rough-sleepers safe, and an additional £2 million went to faith and community groups for the same purpose. Many such groups, including individual churches, have previously opened their doors in winter to provide beds for homeless people, but these had not been able to operate until the publication of new operating principles for night shelters and the injection of additional funding.

Housing Justice welcomed the development, pointing out that cold-weather shelters were staffed by volunteers, and often operated on tiny budgets. “These are people motivated by the desire not to walk by on the other side of the street when someone is affected by homelessness in their community,” the chief executive, Kathy Mohan, said.

“During the first wave of the pandemic, shelters reacted phenomenally, working round the clock until they were able to safely transfer guests to self-contained accommodation. We are pleased that the night-shelter operating principles are here, and more than 150 organisations who provided night shelters in the last year have the facts they need to make tough decisions on their operations this winter.”

The impact of the pandemic has been felt in all areas of work with people who have been homeless or are at risk of homelessness. Duncan Craig, the chief executive of Restore, a small independent charity that has nine houses supporting 35 tenants in York, described the obstacles now encountered by support workers who would previously have dropped in for a chat with vulnerable residents. At present, they can go in only where there is significant risk to mental health, or another serious issue.

Nor is it easy to meet tenants outside. The onset of winter makes them less inclined to go for a walk, and those with depression did not want to leave their rooms. Mr Craig hoped that the moratorium on evictions would remain in place, together with rent control and further help for those with mortgage holidays.

A further £150 million was announced in the Chancellor’s November spending review to help end rough sleeping in England. It followed the announcement of a Protect programme, which brought additional funding to cities and regions, including London and Manchester.

While the additional investment has been commended, charities agree, however, that it falls far short of the Government’s ambition to end homelessness by 2024. The chief executive of Homeless Link, Rick Henderson, said: “In failing to prioritise the issue with fully funded sustainable services, and a welfare safety net that works for everyone, we risk allowing the progress made during the first national lockdown to slip away.” The National Housing Federation is also calling urgently for long-term thinking.

Keenly awaited in the Church of England is the first report from the Archbishop’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community, to be published in February. It was set up after the publication in 2018 of Archbishop of Canterbury’s book Reimagining Britain, in which he argued that the principal aim of housing should be the creation of community, and that good housing was essential to equality and justice (Books, 16 March 2018).

One of the Commission members, the Revd Chris Beales, who has a lifetime of ministry in this field, said on Monday that the Church now had an opportunity to position itself in the forefront of social change — not just charitable change, but engaging in policy terms. “We ought to be making a bigger impact than we are.”

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