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

Sophie Boobis, Research Manager

The homelessness response to COVID-19 has seen extraordinary action taken across Great Britain to get thousands of people into safe accommodation during the pandemic. But, with businesses and livelihoods under continued strain, the economic impact of coronavirus is exerting pressure on people already pushed to the brink by low wages and high rents. 

Between March and September this year, Crisis has been undertaking research to understand the experiences of frontline homelessness services during the pandemic. Released today, the research is based on survey responses with voluntary sector organisations and in-depth interviews with local authorities across Great Britain, tracking the response of services and the changing support needs of people facing homelessness.

Homelessness throughout the pandemic

As the country headed into the first lockdown, there was an immediate increase demand on local authorities and frontline services. Governments ordered emergency accommodation to be provided for people sleeping rough or in unsafe accommodation where self-isolation wasn’t possible, and the demand for support from people newly at risk of homelessness increased. This, all while services were transitioning to working remotely.

Over 50% of services across the country reported an increase in homelessness in their local area, and nearly three-quarters (73%) an increase in demand for support. For local authorities the numbers of people they were supporting in temporary accommodation rocketed. In England, it was estimated that by May 2020 14,610 people had been housed in emergency accommodation.

“The sofa surfing, came more to the fore once we had lockdown, obviously because people were saying, “I don’t feel comfortable with them being here,” or whatever else. So, we had a spike, like I’m sure a lot of councils did, with that sort of thing, having to try and manage that one.” (local authority  respondent, England)

The findings from the research suggest that this initial surge in demand for accommodation and support came from people already experiencing homelessness, including more hidden forms of homelessness, like sofa surfing. This highlights the scale of how many people were already living in precarious situations and how the pressures of the pandemic ended many temporary arrangements, like sofa-surfing with family and friends, leaving people with nowhere else to go.     

Interventions from government such as pausing evictions and changes to welfare support have helped to lower the number of people at risk of, or experiencing homelessness. But these changes are temporary and as time has gone on the profile of people experiencing homelessness has started to change. Local authorities reported growing increases in people fleeing domestic abuse and in relationship breakdowns under the growing pressures of lockdown. In the last few months, the emerging economic impact has started to become more evident as growing rent arrears show the financial strain on households, with increasing numbers of people becoming newly unemployed or experiencing homelessness for the first time.

“I think it’s inevitable there will be an increase, I mean there has to be just through the passage of time if nothing else but there’s also the other part about putting people out there that are, have been affected – had their jobs and income affected and potentially not paid their rent.” (LA respondent, Scotland)

Without a welfare system that ensures people can cover the cost of rent and sufficient availability of affordable housing, there is a real risk of a significant increase in homelessness across the country as the full economic impact of the pandemic hits.

What’s been happening in services?

Since March, local authorities across England, Scotland, and Wales have helped, and are continuing to help, tens of thousands of people who are rough sleeping or at risk of rough sleeping into hotels and other emergency accommodation.

The research found in addition to sourcing emergency accommodation frontline services had to shift the support they provided immediately – including helping people with basic needs such as food and hygiene essentials. Loneliness and isolation were reported to be the biggest support need being faced and for many, this went alongside digital exclusion. At a time when being able to stay connected to loved ones became increasingly important across the population, not being able to access these strong social networks heighten the challenges facing people experiencing homelessness.

The pressure has also been on local authorities to move people through from hotel and emergency accommodation to more permanent secure homes. Unsurprisingly, the biggest barrier to helping people move on from emergency accommodation is housing supply. Across the three nations, the need for a range of appropriate tenures to meet differing support needs is evident, with the lack of availability of suitable homes that existed prior to the pandemic emphasised.  The impact of the work done in Scotland to develop Rapid Rehousing Transition Plans has ensured people have options of where to move to, but in areas with high housing costs and with large numbers of people already in temporary accommodation when the pandemic hit, there are little options for people to move on to.  While local authorities have reflected on their local needs and what that means for a transition to a more housing-led approach, we must see sustained investment to build more affordable housing.

The instruction to provide safe emergency accommodation meant that all local authorities reported an increase in support being provided for people with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), including EEA nationals without entitlements to benefits. For EEA nationals in particular there was an emphasis on the link between employment and homelessness, and specifically in the context of tied accommodation within both the hospitality and agricultural industries.

There are clear anxieties amongst local authorities around the continued financial pressure of supporting people with NRPF with emergency accommodation, the uncertainty of long-term commitments alongside a moral duty not to evict people back onto the streets.

Throughout the pandemic voluntary and statutory services across the country have come together in an unparalleled way. In many areas of the country it led to a pulling together of the sector and a strengthening of relationships that are hoped to endure as a significant positive legacy of the pandemic. As time goes on, the need to sustain these partnerships to continue supporting all those who are still in hotels or sleeping rough is paramount.

Looking ahead

As the pandemic continues, we’re starting to see more and more divergence appear between England, Scotland, and Wales, and between local authorities, seemingly due to lack of communication from UK government. In both Scotland and Wales, local authorities reported they were consistently aware they should continue to provide emergency accommodation to those who need it, and to help them move on to a permanent home.   However, in England there was an increasing lack of universal approach to ‘Everyone In’ with some local authorities stopping entirely, some increasing eligibility restrictions, and some continuing as they have been doing since March.

The existing policy framework in place to end homelessness in Scotland means they have been more effective in their response to tackling homelessness during the pandemic. The groundwork had already been done so people could be moved swiftly into temporary accommodation when they became homeless.  With more and more people now returning to the streets or finding themselves newly rough sleeping the pressure is on to ensure that the successes made earlier in the year are not lost. But local authorities can’t do this alone. Across Great Britain governments must commit to providing long-term funding to ensure that services can continue to support those in emergency accommodation while helping people move on to permanent and secure housing.

“I think, if we don’t receive long-term continuation of funding, it’s going to be a challenge, isn’t it? 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.” (LA respondent, Wales)

In March the unprecedented effort raised hopes that this could be the chance to end rough sleeping in Great Britain. This research has highlighted gaps in the current homelessness system that is preventing this from happening. To achieve the goal of ending homelessness where it is rare, brief and non-recurrent the following principles must be in place:

  • Safe emergency provision is accessible for all – homelessness can result in an urgent need for accommodation. This must be safe, clean and ensure people are treated with dignity.
  • Ending homelessness through a rapid rehousing approach – swift action must be taken to move people quickly from emergency accommodation into permanent affordable housing with person centred support so they don’t experience homelessness again. This must include Housing First for all those who need it.
  • Ensuring prevention measures are embedded to stop people experiencing homelessness in the first place – the welfare system and public bodies all have a role in ensuring people do not experience homelessness in the first place

Read the full report on the Crisis Homelessness knowledge hub.

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