Anything less than safe, self-contained accommodation for everyone risks lives

Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive

Back in March, the Government rightly decided that night shelters and hostels were not a safe environment for people during the pandemic. Across England the extraordinary efforts of homelessness charities, national and local government meant that nearly 15,000 people were supported to move into emergency accommodation in a matter of weeks. There is no doubt that this saved lives.

Now, seven months on, the pandemic is still here, winter is fast approaching, and people sleeping rough are facing an impossible choice between freezing on the streets or staying in a shelter where they are at much greater risk of catching coronavirus.

Today, the Government announced a package of support for people sleeping rough this winter – this includes £12 million funding for local authorities and community and faith groups, and guidance on reopening night shelters.

These plans contrast sharply with the actions taken in March to ensure everyone at risk of sleeping rough was able to access emergency accommodation where they could safely self-isolate. The Government rightly decided that night shelters and hostels were not a safe environment for people during the pandemic. That is as true today as it was then and it is completely unacceptable that this approach is changing now when the threat remains the same.

Recent research published in The Lancet found that the Government’s ‘Everyone In’ response in March meant an estimated 266 deaths were avoided during the first wave of the pandemic among England’s homeless population, as well as 21,092 infections, 1,164 hospital admissions and 338 admissions to Intensive Care Units. The researchers predict that failure to maintain such measures could lead to further spread of the virus and more deaths among people who are homeless.

International examples have also shown us the impact of coronavirus on people facing homelessness if they have no option but to remain in shelters and hostels where self-isolation or social distancing is impossible. In France, Médecins Sans Frontières found that more than 55% of people tested in shelters, soup kitchens & foyers for migrant workers had coronavirus. Transmission was highest in places with the least privacy where people had to share a bedroom, shower and kitchen with other people.

In a study by the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, it was found that the mortality rate from coronavirus for people staying in shelters was 61% higher than the rate among the general population.

Even if shelters are able to operate in line with the principles set out in the Government’s new guidance, it will be impossible to avoid people sharing sleeping spaces, kitchens and bathrooms, putting guests, staff and volunteers at greater risk of catching and becoming seriously ill with coronavirus. People experiencing homelessness already face extreme health inequalities and are three times more likely to experience a chronic health need, including respiratory conditions. A recent study found that among a sample of people facing homelessness in London, the levels of frailty were comparable to 89-year-olds in the general population. Participants had an average of seven long-term health conditions, far higher than people in their 90s.

These health inequalities, with the added health impacts of coronavirus and the cold, mean that failing to protect people in unsafe living conditions over the winter months poses a grave risk to life and will place an enormous and avoidable pressure on the NHS.

Last week, Crisis alongside 16 of Britain’s leading health and homelessness organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of General Practitioners and St Mungo’s, issued an open letter to the Prime Minister warning of the dangers of reopening night shelters and urging the Government to ensure that everyone who needs it has self-contained accommodation to stay in throughout this public health crisis.

The Government’s decision to allow night shelters to reopen this winter ignores this warning from leading health experts and needlessly puts lives at risk.

The success of ‘Everyone In’ and the unprecedented actions taken to protect people facing homelessness in March show what is possible during the pandemic and this same effort must be repeated in the run up to a second wave this winter.

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