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Is ending rough sleeping in England really possible?

Matt Downie MBE, Director of Policy and External Affairs

Over the last few months, we have seen a phenomenal effort from national and local government and homelessness charities to help thousands of people sleeping on our streets, and in overcrowded accommodation, into emergency accommodation in the midst of this dangerous pandemic. Our work - both through our frontline services and with local homelessness organisations - has meant we have seen people who have never before accessed help to end their homelessness provided with a roof over their heads where they can safely self-isolate.

This support has been unprecedented in scale, with the government reporting back in May that nearly 15,000 people across the country have been helped into emergency accommodation that would otherwise be left highly exposed to coronavirus, or be at risk of rough sleeping without timely intervention.

However, while these numbers capture the significant response from the government and local authorities across the country, which has undoubtedly saved lives, we know it doesn’t paint the full picture of the current impact of coronavirus on the homeless population.

Has rough sleeping increased during the pandemic?

Towards the end of last week, new statistics from the Greater London Authority (GLA) were released showing the numbers of people rough sleeping in London from April – June this year.[1] These statistics show the flow of people sleeping rough over these months, rather than just a ‘snapshot’ of the numbers at one point in time. And while we have seen a huge effort to support people sleeping rough, the numbers show there has been an increase (33%) in people sleeping rough in London over this period when compared to the same period last year, with almost two-thirds (63%) of people sleeping rough for the first time. Worryingly, the number of new rough sleepers has increased by 77% compared to the same time last year.

Does this then mean that the effort from the government, both local and national, has been in vain?

Definitely not. These statistics reveal a nuanced, complex picture of the impact of coronavirus on people who are homeless and those with precarious, unstable living arrangements. We know from our research with local homelessness organisations that, throughout lockdown, more and more people who were ‘hidden homeless’ were forced to sleep rough. These were people who had been sleeping on friends’ sofas and floors. Suddenly the impact of an impending lockdown meant their situations were no longer sustainable. People who were letting a friend sleep on their couch were no longer able or willing to, with fears about self-isolating and the risk of transmission.

This meant that when the instruction came to stay at home, coronavirus exposed the true numbers of those without one. With more people forced to sleep on our streets, there were more people who needed the emergency hotel accommodation. And the positive impact of this has been seen, with the figures for London showing that while people newly sleeping rough has increased, more than 3,700 people were housed in emergency accommodation where they could self-isolate. And the number of people who were living on the streets, i.e. have been sleeping rough for some time, actually went down by a third.

We know some people have slipped through the cracks and have not been able to access an offer of emergency accommodation. For some, hotel accommodation was not the right offer. Others found that councils reapplied the legal barriers that were in place before the pandemic, being told they don’t have the right immigration status, proof of local residency, sufficient vulnerability, etc.

There are now two groups of people that have experienced rough sleeping during the pandemic: those that were helped as part of a public health response, regardless of their background; and those still at acute risk of the virus and on the streets because that initial generosity has gone and people are being denied help again. And of course, the root causes of rough sleeping have not been addressed.

Where does this leave us – is ending rough sleeping still possible?

From these new statistics, it’s clear we’ve reached a crossroads.

This has been a unique period during which more people have been helped off the street than at any time in recent years. The Everyone In scheme was a success based on the idea that ALL rough sleepers should be helped. This principle is life-saving, and it reveals the cruelty of the rationing that councils are once again being asked to perform in legally denying assistance to groups that do not qualify for help.

We urge the government to build on its success, and to introduce legislation to ensure that everyone who is sleeping rough, or is at risk, can access emergency accommodation in the next 12 months. Without this, we will continue to see increasing rough sleeping - especially once protections like the evictions ban and the furlough scheme wind down. ​

Ending rough sleeping has always been possible. Everyone In has shown the way, and now we need political will and reforms to make our shared vision a reality.

[1] https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/chain-reports

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