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The impact of COVID-19 on people facing homelessness and service provision across Wales

Nick Morris, Head of Policy and Communications (Wales)

People experiencing homelessness, especially those rough sleeping or in unsafe temporary accommodation, are among the most exposed to the risk of coronavirus. The pandemic is also putting huge economic pressure on people already pushed to the brink by low wages and high rents.

Crisis published research today, based on surveys and interviews between March and September with voluntary services and councils across Britain, that shines a light on the frontline response to the coronavirus pandemic from homelessness services. My colleague Sophie Boobis, Crisis Research Manager and co-author of the research, has separately blogged on the whole report and this blog focuses on the response in Wales.

During the outbreak, governments across Britain took extraordinary actions to move thousands of people into safer emergency accommodation. Services helping people facing homelessness also had to adapt, almost literally overnight, to working within public health guidelines, including reducing face-to-face contact and working more remotely where possible.

Early in the outbreak, the Welsh Government made £10 million available to councils to quickly re-accommodate hundreds of people across Wales who were sleeping rough or in communal temporary accommodation that was a public health risk during the pandemic. This action, and those by governments in Scotland and England, undoubtedly saved lives with infection rates and deaths amongst people experiencing homelessness at extremely low levels when compared internationally. 

The research also found that across Britain the most pressing support needed early in the lockdown was for emergency basic needs, such as lack of food and digital exclusion. By contrast as the summer was coming to an end services had to address cumulative pressures, such as rent arrears, leading to more efforts to support tenants and to freeze evictions.

One of the biggest ongoing challenges facing local authorities is the ability to successfully move those housed in emergency accommodation into permanent and secure housing. 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.

“We’re working with more people in a more intensive way, which is what we want to do, so that people don’t return to homelessness, or are less likely to come back through – then we need to offer more support, which is going to cost money.” Welsh local council interviewee

To address this challenge the Welsh Government launched the ‘phase 2’ work in July, making £50 million available for bids from councils and their service delivery partners. Phase 2 aims to make sure people are helped to move on to more permanent accommodation and ensure no one is forced back onto the street. In the medium to long term councils will start to change local systems to prioritise a ‘rapid rehousing’ approach to homelessness.

While our research found that funding in Wales for the emergency coronavirus response was more sufficient than in England, there are still anxieties about the future. The emergency funding is continuing throughout the winter but there are concerns among councils about the future of phase 2 funding, which lasts until March 2021.

“I think, if we don’t receive long-term continuation of funding, it’s going to be a challenge, isn’t it? Welsh local council interviewee
“If that resource comes to an end, how are we as the local authority going to fund it?” Welsh local council interviewee

All governments in Britain are trying to grapple with these challenges. In Scotland the pandemic has added further urgency for councils to complete their ‘rapid rehousing transition plans’, including the need to scale-up Housing First across Scotland to support people with multiple support needs. In England many councils still rely on supported accommodation and longer-term hostels to move people out of emergency accommodation.

Wales is currently somewhere between these approaches. Phase 2 aims to take a longer-term approach to rapid rehousing while also bolstering temporary accommodation supply in the short-term. We’re also expecting a statement very soon from the Welsh Housing and Local Government Minister, Julie James, about how the Welsh Government plans to take a longer-term approach to homelessness.

In March the Minister accepted in principle all recommendations of the Homelessness Action Group, chaired by Jon Sparkes, Crisis Chief Executive. The group set out a framework of policies, approaches and plans to:

  • Make homelessness rarer by preventing it earlier through targeted help for those more at risk and taking further actions to address the root causes of homelessness, such as the shortage of social homes.
  • Make homelessness briefer and non-repeated for those who experience it, changing the support system so that people are rapidly rehoused with all the support they need.
  • Support and fund partnerships in Welsh public services and between service delivery organisations, people with experience of homelessness, and front-facing workers.

Our research suggests Welsh local authorities are up for this challenge overall. However, public services across Wales are working flat out and councils need more certainty about the next steps so that they can take a longer-term approach to ensure they can tackle homelessness for good. The coronavirus outbreak response has given homelessness services across Wales a chance to work more closely together to protect people experiencing homelessness during the public health emergency. They will need to continue this close working after the pandemic, building on the short term responses to ensure homelessness can be ended for good across Wales.

Boobis and Albanese (2020) The impact of COVID-19 on people facing homelessness and service provision across Great Britain is published today.

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