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Homelessness: crisis round the corner?

22 July 2020

Lockdown, compounded by a deep economic slump, threatens to push thousands of people into homelessness. Journalist Juliette Astrup explores this shifting landscape and asks what happens next.

The unprecedented steps taken to protect homeless people from infection were at least one silver lining precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In England, £3.2m was allocated to local authorities to fund rooms in hostels, hotels and student halls and by mid-April over 90% of rough sleepers in England had been offered emergency accommodation. By May, nearly 15,000 people had been provided for as a result of this ‘Everyone In’ initiative (Wilson and Cromarty, 2020).

Similar action was taken across the rest of the UK. For example, the Scottish Government contributed £350m to support welfare and wellbeing in local communities during Covid-19 – including funds for homelessness charities providing accommodation for rough sleepers (Scottish Government, 2020a). By early June, it was thought that no more than 30 people were sleeping rough across Scotland (Scottish Parliament, 2020).

In Wales, up to £10m was provided to help local authorities secure accommodation for rough sleepers and those in temporary accommodation (Welsh Government, 2020). And emergency measures approved by Northern Ireland’s Housing Executive, including sourcing additional temporary accommodation, brought such swift success that by early April, there was no one sleeping rough on the streets of Belfast or Derry (Department for Communities NI, 2020).

‘No one wants to rent to an unemployed 18- or 19-year-old. Young people who already had few places to go are being shunned more than ever’

Springboard or slip-up?

Now is a pivotal moment for homelessness in the UK. While there is real hope that recent achievements could act as a springboard for lasting change, with the initial wave of funding exhausted, concern is now growing around what is being done to stop people ending up back on the streets. And what more can be done to stop yet more vulnerable people slipping into homelessness as the economic downturn bites?

As Matt Downie, director of policy at homelessness charity Crisis, puts it: ‘We will take one of two paths here: one is that 15,000 people are permanently helped out of homelessness through the amazing Everyone In scheme, or we will see a massive increase in rough sleeping in this country just at the point when we thought it would be possible to avoid that.’

But accusations that the government is winding up support have been swiftly rebuffed. A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said it was clear that ‘councils should continue to provide safe accommodation for those who need it’. The government has also provided £3.2bn of additional funding to help local councils in England respond to coronavirus – intended in part to meet the ongoing costs of continuing to house the homeless (MHCLG, 2020a).

In addition to this, a new taskforce has been appointed to lead the next phase of the response at a national level, with its ‘one overriding objective’ being ‘to ensure that as many people as possible who have been brought in off the streets in this pandemic do not return to the streets’ (MHCLG, 2020a).

Charities supporting rough sleepers will get a £6m slice of the £750m government funding made available to support charities impacted by Covid-19 (MHCLG, 2020b).

Looking further ahead, the government has also pushed forward a £433m programme to make available 6000 homes for vulnerable rough sleepers – a move that will also see Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefit from millions more in funding through the Barnett formula (MHCLG, 2020c).

The devolved governments have also announced funding and action plans: Scotland has reconvened its Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group to guide its next steps, while the Welsh Government has announced new funding of up to £20m for phase two of its response to homelessness in the context of Covid-19, aiming to ensure that ‘no one is forced to return to the streets or any other form of homelessness’ (Scottish Government, 2020b; Welsh Parliament, 2020).

 

Falling through the gaps

While the crisis has successfully, if not yet permanently, put roofs over the heads of many rough sleepers, it may have penalised the ‘hidden homeless’ – the so-called sofa surfers and those in unstable or unsuitable accommodation.

Ffion Nicholas, helpline advice worker at Centrepoint, a charity which supports young homeless people, says: ‘When lockdown was introduced, we heard from young people who had been trying to manage their homelessness by staying with friends or family. For many, lockdown brought sofa surfing to a complete halt and we heard from people finding themselves at risk of street homelessness for the first time.’

Ffion also heard from young people ‘made homeless due to living with someone who’s high risk’. ‘The young person had to choose between going to work or college and having somewhere to live.’

The pressure of ‘everyone being kept at home all together’ on top of ‘other possible stressors such as overcrowding, mental health issues and financial insecurity’ have also taken their toll. ‘These situations often have reached breaking point by the time we hear from young people,’ adds Ffion.

And with most day centres and emergency accommodation services across the country closed under lockdown, young people have seen local options ‘drastically reduced’. Ffion says: ‘Young people have had to depend more heavily on the council’s support and accessing help through outreach services. Unfortunately, we’ve found this has led to some young people struggling to access any kind of support.’

Added to this, she says, there have been ‘fewer opportunities to find work and it has been much more difficult than normal to find somewhere to rent’.

As Kate Martins, support worker with young people’s charity Step by Step’s Youth AIMS advice service, puts it: ‘We’ve seen many young people lose their jobs and no one wants to rent to an unemployed 18- or 19-year-old. Young people who already had few places to go are being shunned more than ever.’

 

A new wave of need

Even as we enter the first phase of what threatens to be a deep economic slump, alarm bells are already being sounded over a surge in demand for help. Research by homelessness charity Crisis found that more than half of frontline services (53%) have seen a rise in homelessness. Its survey of 150 charities and organisations supporting people experiencing homelessness across Britain also showed nearly three-quarters reported demand for their services has increased since the start of the pandemic, while 60% said they were seeing an increase in people who’ve recently lost their job.

The mounting pressure is already impacting mental and physical wellbeing, Crisis warns, with organisations surveyed reporting a dramatic rise in people seeking help for basic needs such as food (86%), their finances (76%) and feelings of loneliness and isolation (96%) (Crisis, 2020).

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, says: ‘At this very minute, tens of thousands of people across Great Britain are struggling against a rising tide of job insecurity and high rents, all of which threaten to push them into homelessness. We’re also seeing people who are still trapped on our streets because they aren’t eligible for help. This isn’t right especially when, given the progress we’ve made so far, we know that ending homelessness is within our grasp.

‘As a society we must now do everything we can to make sure that people hit the hardest during this period and beyond aren’t pushed further to the brink.’

Unfortunately, young people again seem set to bear the brunt. Youth unemployment is projected to reach just over one million in the second quarter of this year – up roughly 640,000 year on year – due to the impact of coronavirus (Resolution Foundation, 2020a). Their income has also been disproportionately impacted, with a third of young people having lost their jobs or been furloughed as a result of Covid-19 (Resolution Foundation, 2020b).

‘Lockdown brought sofa surfing to a halt, and we heard from people at first time risk of street homelessness’

Help – but not for All?

Governments have taken action to safeguard jobs and prevent evictions. On 5 June, the government announced a two-month extension suspending evictions from social and private rented accommodation across England and Wales until 23 August (MHCLG, 2020d), while legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland has also sought to protect tenants with the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 and Private Tenancies (Coronavirus Modifications) Act (Northern Ireland) 2020. An increase in housing benefit and Universal Credit are among the raft of other support measures in place.

However, these steps will not be enough to reach everyone, says Ffion from Centrepoint: ‘This support only goes as far as to protect people who have tenancies and to help entrenched rough sleepers into safe, albeit temporary accommodation. A significant proportion of the young people we speak to don’t fall into these categories. Our callers are predominantly finding themselves either homeless or at risk for the first time, and falling through the cracks of the additional Covid-19 support on offer.’

 

Despite local authorities’ duty to ensure those under 18 have somewhere safe to stay, young people often struggle to access this support, adds Ffion. ‘Either their parents have said that they can come home, even if this isn’t actually the case, or their social worker has decided that they’re safe at home.’

What can we do?

The amount of change, new legislation, initiatives, funding and announcements related to homelessness over the past four months is overwhelming. So, in the midst of this flux, what should community practitioners (CPs) keep in mind?

Ffion says: ‘We know that the biggest cause of youth homelessness is family breakdown – where tensions and disagreements at home escalate to the point where the young person is either kicked out or feels like they have to leave. We would encourage CPs to work with families and use services such as family mediation wherever possible to alleviate any difficulties there might be at home.

‘It’s also important to bear in mind that people can seek help from the council if they are at risk of homelessness in the next 56 days - the sooner this process starts, the easier it is to prevent homelessness.

‘Finally, to get involved in campaigning, you can sign up for updates from our policy team,’ she adds (see Resources).

This is of course far from the end of the story; in just a few months’ time the combination of job losses and the eventual close of the furlough scheme, along with the end of the moratorium on renter evictions, threatens to bring more people to the brink – and over it.

Homelessness is far from solved – but if nothing else this Covid crisis has demonstrated how much can be achieved with sufficient money and political will. The question that remains is whether that will be sustained for long enough to make a lasting difference?  


Resources  

Centrepoint has a helpline for anyone in England aged 16 to 25 on 0808 800 0661 (Monday-Friday, 9am to 5pm) centrepoint.org.uk  

Ask your MP/MSP/AM how they’re helping and sign up for updates bit.ly/Centrepoint_updates  

Donate, volunteer or campaign at Crisis crisis.org.uk  

Housing advice and how to help at Shelter shelter.org.uk


References:

Coronavirus (Scotland) Act. (2020) See: legislation.gov.uk/asp/2020/7/contents (accessed 16 June 2020).

Crisis. (2020) Over half of frontline services have seen a rise in homelessness. See: crisis.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/over-half-of-frontline-services-have-seen-a-rise-in-homelessness (accessed 16 June 2020).

Department for Communities NI. (2020) Hargey pays tribute to the homelessness sector. See: communities-ni.gov.uk/news/hargey-pays-tribute-homelessness-sector (accessed 16 June 2020).

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. (2020a) Response to Manchester Evening News story on support for rough sleepers. See: https://mhclgmedia.blog.gov.uk/2020/05/15/response-to-manchester-evening-news-story-on-support-for-rough-sleepers (accessed 16 June 2020).

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. (2020b) Charities to benefit from support for rough sleepers during pandemic. See: gov.uk/government/news/charities-to-benefit-from-support-for-rough-sleepers-during-pandemic (accessed 16 June 2020).

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. (2020c) 6,000 new supported homes as part of landmark commitment to end rough sleeping. See: gov.uk/government/news/6-000-new-supported-homes-as-part-of-landmark-commitment-to-end-rough-sleeping (accessed 16 June 2020).

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. (2020d) Ban on evictions extended by 2 months to further protect renters. See: gov.uk/government/news/ban-on-evictions-extended-by-2-months-to-further-protect-renters (accessed 16 June 2020).

Private Tenancies (Coronavirus Modifications) Act (Northern Ireland). (2020) See: legislation.gov.uk/nia/2020/2/enacted (accessed 16 June 2020).

Resolution Foundation. (2020a) Class of 2020. See: resolutionfoundation.org/publications/class-of-2020 (accessed 16 June 2020).

Resolution Foundation. (2020b) Young workers in the coronavirus crisis. See: https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/app/uploads/2020/05/Young-workers-in-the-coronavirus-crisis.pdf (accessed 16 June 2020).

Scottish Government. (2020a) Helping communities affected by COVID-19. See gov.scot/news/helping-communities-affected-by-covid-19 (accessed 14 June 2020).

Scottish Government. (2020b) Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group minutes: June 2020. See: gov.scot/publications/homelessness-and-rough-sleeping-action-group-minutes-june-2020 (accessed 16 June 2020).

Scottish Parliament. (2020) Official report: meeting of the parliament (hybrid) 9 June 2020. See: parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=12684&mode=html#iob_114743 (accessed 16 June 2020).

Welsh Government. (2020) Written statement: COVID-19 response – homelessness and rough sleepers. See: gov.wales/written-statement-covid-19-response-homelessness-and-rough-sleepers (accessed 16 June 2020).

Welsh Parliament. (2020) Plenary session 3 June: statement by Julie James, minister for housing and local government. See: https://record.assembly.wales/Plenary/6331?lang=en-GB (accessed 16 June 2020).

Wilson W, Cromarty, H. (2020) Coronavirus: a ban on evictions and help for rough sleepers. House of Commons Library Briefing Paper no. 08867. See: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8867/?doing_wp_cron=1592064618.3082890510559082031250 (accessed 16 June 2020).


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