The Government Isn’t Doing Enough To Combat The Homeless Crisis During The Pandemic
This week, researchers at University College London (UCL) revealed they had recorded more cases of coronavirus among homeless people in the capital throughout January than the whole of last year.
The findings, which were published on Twitter, showed that 127 people tested positive for the virus in January this year, compared to 28 in April 2020. The news comes after the government allowed communal night shelters for rough sleepers to reopen.
Dr Al Story, Clinical Lead and Manager for Find & Treat, and Co-Director of the Collaborative Centre for Inclusion Health at UCL, said that while the team did not have any national data, the picture outside London looks the same.
He attributed the sharp rise to three drivers: mutations in the virus, max capacity within accommodations, and too many people on the street.
During the first national lockdown, the government introduced its ‘Everyone In’ initiative. The instruction to local authorities was simple: everyone who was homeless or without accommodation must be given shelter.
While the initiative didn’t have an end date as such, it was phased out over summer with the introduction of the ‘Next Steps Accommodation Programme’, which aimed to move those helped by the initiative into permanent housing.
However, this stopped the stream of funding that was being provided under the initiative and asked local authorities to bid for it instead.
Binta Sultan, a doctoral fellow at the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said the government’s withdrawal of financial support to continue the initiative has led to overcrowded homeless facilities and an increase in rough sleepers.
This means a coronavirus outbreak in homeless accommodation can lead to a high attack rate, which, coupled with the complex clinical needs of many rough sleepers, leaves them particularly vulnerable to the virus.
‘Everyone In was an opportunity to both reduce the impact of coronavirus as well as provide housing and improve health for a vulnerable population, that opportunity was lost when funding was pulled back. The data clearly shows that current accommodation for the homeless is not adequate to prevent outbreaks and people getting unwell’ Sultan said.
Thangam Debbonaire, Labour’s shadow housing secretary, said the government had backtracked on its commitment, and now local authorities are suffering.
‘At the beginning of the pandemic, the government said they would do whatever it takes to support councils with the costs of bringing everybody in. Councils across the country reported to me that this isn’t what happened, that the true costs were not covered, and meanwhile, the flow of rough sleepers didn’t stop,’ she said.
‘Councils haven’t been adequately recompensed for the costs. Later on down the line, that’s going to mean budget difficulties and it’s going to have an effect on core services. The national government has failed to come good on their promise. It’s just really reprehensible, it hands councils the blame and the responsibility for things going wrong,’ Debbonaire added.
The Local Government Association (LGA) agreed that while the funding provided throughout the pandemic to tackle homelessness was helpful, in many cases it will not have been sufficient to cover all costs.
‘That is why councils are likely to need further resources in the coming weeks and months to continue protecting rough sleepers. The success of the Everyone In initiative in getting people sleeping rough off the streets and saving lives shows we can end the vast majority of rough sleeping. It is vital that we build on the lessons learnt, and strive to make this the new normal, rather than a one-off emergency response,’ the association said.
One part of the country where this is already having consequences is Manchester.
Manchester City Council said that while it acknowledges the financial support the government provided during the Everyone In scheme last year, it has failed to cover the costs the council has incurred.
‘Our concern is that short-term temporary solutions do not solve systemic problems which are the root cause of homeless,’ it said in a statement.
‘Progress has been made with some people with complex needs, who with the wrap-around support and accommodation have been able to improve their circumstances and move on to stable accommodation, something that prior to this may have taken a much longer time to achieve,’ it added.
However, the council said the pandemic has caused ‘untold economic damage’.
‘We are seeing increases in homelessness through the impacts of financial uncertainty and the breakdown of family and household relationships. This is a trend we have seen throughout the past year,’ they added.
Debbonaire said the lack of recompense for councils will either lead to a rise in council tax or cuts to services. ‘Both of those things in the middle of a pandemic are wrong,’ she said.
In the November 2020 Spending Review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak set out an additional £2.2 billion funding increase for councils. £1.9 billion of this is expected to come from increases in council tax, which is set to rise by 5%.
At the beginning of this year, the government asked local authorities to redouble their efforts to find suitable accommodation for all homeless people. While councils have made efforts to do so, there are many people still falling through the gaps, Ruth Jacob, a senior policy officer at Crisis says.
‘We’ve seen increasing numbers of people being pushed into homelessness or rough sleeping because of the pandemic. Because of the pressures of lockdown, it meant that for people who were ‘sofa-surfing’ or in other temporary situations, those arrangements broke down and they were forced into rough sleeping. Since the summer, there are a lot more people that have fallen through the gaps,’ she says.
In October 2020, the government reported there had been a 14.9% increase in households owed the relief duty in the last year. This deems someone homeless and in need of assistance from their local authority.
Although the government did introduce an eviction ban to help protect tenants who cannot afford to pay rent because of the pandemic from homelessness, loopholes in the provision have left people at risk.
‘Previously, if you were in serious rent arrears there was an exception to the eviction ban. You could be evicted if these were classed as nine months or more, not including arrears accrued during the pandemic,’ a spokesperson for ACORN, a community union supporting low-income people, said.
With the introduction of another national lockdown, the government extended the ban until February 21 but made slight changes. Under the new rules, the exception is now classed as six months arrears and can include those accrued during the pandemic.
The union said it has also seen an increase in attempted illegal evictions since the beginning of the pandemic. One big reason behind this increase is an imbalance of power between landlords and tenants as well as misinformation.
‘Landlords don’t know the rules in a lot of cases, and even if they do, the tenants don’t always know their rights. So, just because eviction is illegal, doesn’t mean that it’s not going to work,’ a spokesperson said.
‘We’ve had cases where police have forced through illegal eviction because even they’ve not known the rules,’ they added.
It has been a particularly worrisome time for those who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status. This entails people who are eligible to live in the UK but have lost work because of the pandemic, and now don’t have access to benefits or support.
This means they cannot get access to emergency accommodation and are more likely to become rough sleepers.
Initially, the Ministry of Housing encouraged local authorities to take in all those rough sleeping, irrespective of nationality or their entitlement to benefits.
However, in a later letter, dated May 28, 2020, the department told councils that legal restrictions on offering support to people ineligible for benefits remained in place, and that exceptions should only be made if there is a risk to life.
This raises a key issue for many councils. Messaging from the government around support for those facing homelessness has been confusing and as a consequence, the response of local authorities has differed. According to data from LGA, councils across the country accommodated 15,000 people between May and September, including many who had no recourse to public funds.
‘This work has continued despite the lack of clarity, and despite the significant financial pressures on council services,’ the association said.
LGA said it has been ‘urging the Government to lift the No Recourse to Public Funds condition so that councils can ensure that everyone who is vulnerable can access help if needed, regardless of immigration status,’ but as it stands, councils do not have the statutory duties to provide support for people who fall into this category.
‘We are calling for an ambitious, national-level programme of policy and funding reform to help councils to meet the challenge of tackling homelessness,’ the association added.
UPDATE: A spokesperson for The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said: ‘Working with councils and their partners, we have taken huge steps to protect rough sleepers during the pandemic. This work has not stopped and by November we supported 33,000 rough sleepers and other vulnerable people through Everyone In, with nearly 10,000 in emergency accommodation and over 23,000 already moved into longer-term accommodation.’
‘Backed by £10 million funding, we have asked all councils to redouble their efforts to help accommodate those sleeping rough and ensure they are registered with a GP, so they can receive vaccinations in line with the appropriate priority groups. We’ve also provided unprecedented support for renters during the pandemic through the ban on the enforcement of evictions, furlough and boosting the welfare system by billions – increasing Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit by up to £1,040 for the year will help reduce rent arrears,’ the MHCLG added.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Most Read StoriesMost Read