Will the Pandemic Change How England Addresses Homelessness?

Homeless Woman in UK

Of the many surprises thrown up by 2020, the UK’s Conservative government announcing in April that it had met its five-year target for reducing homelessness in England in just two days was one of the more positive.

The real story, predictably, was more complicated than that. But it did begin simply enough: with an email.

Dame Louise Casey, a member of the UK’s House of Lords with a long career in tackling homelessness issues, messaged all 343 local authorities (called councils) in England asking for an “unusual effort” amid “unusual times”.

While councils do provide accommodation for eligible applicants through local housing authorities in “normal times”, they are usually tasked with focusing on early intervention to prevent homelessness. As anyone who has walked down an English high street will know, many people fall through the cracks.

So on March 25th, with a pandemic looming and a national lockdown coming into effect, Dame Louise’s email was clear. Councils needed to find a way to get “everyone in”.

How Did It Work?

The programme, which was officially dubbed “Everyone In”, saw councils set about finding self-contained accommodation, food and medical support for every rough sleeper on their radar. Crucially, this included people living in shelters and hostels, places where high numbers of Covid-19 cases were seen elsewhere. It also included people previously not considered “high priority”, and those ineligible for any housing support. This included the “intentionally homeless” and migrants and asylum seekers with “no recourse to public funds”.

Councils had access to a £3.2 million emergency pot to help with the effort. They began housing people in empty hotels, apartments, student accommodation and flats, with support from charities and the NHS.

By early May, over 5,000 people had been brought off the streets, around 1,400 of them in London, ending the majority of rough sleeping in England. (As a devolved issue, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have followed their own initiatives during this period.)

Jasmine Basran, a policy manager at homelessness charity Crisis, said this had an “incredible” effect. People who had previously been denied support due to their immigration status or other factors were being housed. Some of them had been on the streets for years. Finally, they could access both a comfortable space, medical and addiction support services, help with benefits claims and more.

Cracks in the Plan

Even at this early stage, it was never truly “everyone”. The sudden economic fallout from the pandemic, combined with new rules on social distancing and restrictions on movement, meant hundreds of people became newly-homeless during this period.

In late April, the mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham said that while the Greater Manchester Combined Authority had housed 1,140 homeless people during the lockdown, around 115 people across the region were still sleeping rough. The Greater London Authority said between 400 and 600 people were sleeping rough in the capital in the same period.

The restrictive and isolating nature of being placed into such accommodation proved difficult for some people to handle, Basran noted. This rang particularly true if they were homeless for a long time or had mental health or substance abuse issues. Some might have been placed far from where they are usually based, or struggle with the restrictive nature of lockdown life.

Still, the first stage of “Everyone In” was widely applauded; and it saved lives. A study in medical journal The Lancet, published in September, estimated that 21,092 Covid-19 cases, 1,164 hospital admissions and 266 deaths were avoided as a result of the scheme.

What Happened Next?

How the end of “Everyone In” played out – in fact, whether it ended at all – depends on who you ask.

Over the summer, with lockdown restrictions lifting, reports emerged of confusion among councils over what their centrally-mandated duties were on homelessness. Contracts with hotels and other accommodation providers began to end. Whether an “Everyone In” policy continued to be pursued, and how the transition of thousands of people out of accommodation was managed, became a matter of local decision-making, largely affected by the resources of specific councils.

As of November, more than 29,000 people had been housed in emergency accommodation since the pandemic began. Two-thirds of these individuals were moved into settled accommodation. That’s according to the government, which has denied the “Everyone In” scheme was officially brought to a close.

It has made several funding announcements:

  • The initial £3.2 million fund for councils was followed up by an additional £3.2 billion. (Note: this was also expected to cover a variety of costs such as social care.)
  • A September pledge of £91.5 million for councils to make individual plans for rough sleepers over winter
  • A £10 million Cold Weather Fund (down from £13 million in 2019)
  • The launch of the “Protect Programme” to provide targeted support

Yet there have also been a succession of damning headlines and statistics:

  • A year-on-year increase in the number of 16- to 25-year-olds sleeping rough in London between July and September
  • Tens of thousands of people becoming homeless despite an ostensible ban on evictions
  • New legislation stating rough sleepers without the right immigration status will be at risk of deportation

And the worst may be yet to come. We are facing months of cold temperatures and new stringent guidelines for shelters combined with the ends of the furlough scheme and eviction ban.

Another worrying stat has emerged in December: a sharp year-on-year rise in people and families on the brink of homelessness.

Will Everyone In Have a Long-Term Impact?

It’s clear that there have been both successes and failures in tackling homelessness in England this year. That, and there are many challenges ahead (including those that are deep-rooted, like the UK’s affordable housing crisis).

But while this year has been exceptional in many ways, there are also signs that the events of 2020 could have a long-term impact on the ways homelessness is addressed in the country.

One lesson that seems to have been learned during the pandemic is the power of better collaboration between different agencies. This has also been enhanced by an increased use of digital tools.

A Crisis survey, which gathered local authorities’ takes on the pandemic, found they sped-up their referral processes this year. They were now able to implement “real-time”, multi-agency working through digital platforms.

For example, one local authority worker said that while they would have previously sent representatives to a support group for female sex workers and to other meetings each week, they were now increasingly connecting with these groups by phone, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and other platforms throughout the week. This allowed for faster responses to individual cases and a more effective, joined-up response between the local authorities, health services, the third sector and the police.

There’s also been an increase in the use of digital tools to connect with vulnerable people directly. Charities like Crisis have had to adapt their services to incorporate more socially-distanced support. This could hold lessons for the future, Jasmine Basran explained.

“Digital exclusion is something we’ve looked at for a long time, but since we’ve been forced to communicate with some people virtually, by phone or Zoom, we’ve really focused on teaching those skills,” she said.

“It will be an opportunity going forward, especially with Universal Credit [living benefits] emphasising digital work … if we’re remote we can still support people with those applications.”

Accordingly, Crisis has announced a two-year partnership with network provider Tesco Mobile to provide £700,000 worth of phones, laptops, tablets and connectivity, which will reach at least 2,500 people struggling with homelessness.

Councils have also reported a rise in their use of telephone- and email-based housing service. While this presents many difficulties, such as many people don’t have access to a phone, it’s also had positive effects. For example, the ease of not having to travel to a council office, potentially shorter waiting times, and reduced stigma. Some councils have even set up WhatsApp groups providing advice and a human response from 8am to 8pm.

Housing First at Last?

Matt Downie, director of policy at Crisis, has said that the pandemic should make England reconsider its localised approach to housing. This approach sees councils setting their own policies and budgets on the issue, with location affecting what one receives. Downie called this system “inappropriate” and says such policies “can’t be left to every council”.

The striking thing about this year has been how “Everyone In” has served as a test case for introducing a scaled-up Housing First policy across England.

This is supported by a recent report from the Local Government Agency (LGA), which specifically set out to examine the potential lessons from “Everyone In”. It found that the pandemic has “led to a review of existing ways of delivering services,” in large part because “bringing people in as a public health response … enabled new and more positive engagement with people who may previously have resisted attempts to support them, or simply not known that help was available.”

The report also found many councils were “surprised” by the extent to which “having a self-contained room…with adequate washing facilities and food, provided a new sense of dignity and self-worth for many rough sleepers”. It also allowed them to receive better support and engage with agencies to arrange permanent housing.

Councils told the report’s authors they would be reviewing their pathways of care for rough sleepers. Instead of “staircasing” – offering emergency accommodation in a shelter, then hostel-type accommodation for up to two years, and then a home – they could see how hostel accommodation was viewed negatively by the recipients. A comfortable room with washing and laundry facilities and regular meals had a more transformative effect.

The government now says it has approved grants to create over 3,000 new long-term homes across England for rough sleepers.

In Brighton, councillors who have long pushed for a Housing First model said they have secured funding for 30 properties to re-house vulnerable people with government funding and support from charity Homeless Link. And councils such as Cornwall, Haringey, Westminster and many more have said they will continue a policy of accommodating anyone deemed to be at risk of rough sleeping, even if not in priority need.

How to Fund It

There are other councils, which have questioned their ability to fund a system that prioritises self-accommodation, even with the announced resources, and to find enough appropriate housing. In Chester, for example, plans to turn just two properties which have been empty for two years into staffed accommodation for homeless people have been met with strong local opposition from local residents.

Some councils told the LGA report they were concerned that a Housing First approach could lead to people at high-risk receiving a slower or poorer level of assistance. Others expressed worry that policy changes related to housing during the pandemic, such as the eviction ban and extension of Local Housing Allowance [a rent-based benefit], have been temporary ones.

Rebecca Rennison, a councillor in the London borough of Hackney, additionally warned against the success of “Everyone In” being used to “oversimplify” the issue of tackling homelessness.

Rennison said that while the scheme was hugely welcome, in Hackney (as elsewhere) getting people into housing needs to go alongside investment in wrap around services, including care for mental health, substance abuse and past traumas.

“Homelessness and rough sleeping is as much about health as it is housing, and any government-led response must recognise this if it is to move beyond catchy headlines and achieve real change,” Rennison said.

The Big Picture

Crisis’s Jasmine Basran believes the long-term impact of 2020 is in the moonshot thinking it unlocked.

“For me, the thing that has been so important this year is that it has shown what is possible,” she said. “We’re at a clear moment where the government could really change homelessness in this country, and that we don’t have to be in a place where it’s an accepted norm.”

“Too often it’s reduced to the notion of people wanting to be homeless. People aren’t always offered safe homes, and they face barriers to jump though,” she continued. “If you make it clear it’s about getting people into a safe and secure home then it’s transformative. Anything is possible.”


Jenni Reid

Jenni Reid

  

Jenni is a freelance journalist based in London. She was previously the online editor at a newspaper in Cambodia, and now writes on a range of topics, including transport, travel and social issues.

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