Councils have been given 48 hours to find emergency accommodation for all rough sleepers in England following an unprecedented, but unfunded, request from the government that all homeless people should be housed by Sunday.
Council officials welcomed the urgency of the request but expressed concern about the difficulty of the task, given the already acute accommodation shortages. These shortages worsened this week after a parallel government instruction to hotels to close. The Local Government Association (LGA) said councils would need extra funding if they were to meet the deadline.
“These are unusual times, so I’m asking for an unusual effort,” an email from Louise Casey, who was appointed last week to lead the government’s response to Covid-19 and rough sleeping, read. “As you know, this is a public health emergency.” Casey, who also worked as Tony Blair’s homelessness tsar, said it was vital that night shelters and all street encampments be closed down, to stop the spread of the disease.
Later Luke Hall, the junior housing minister, wrote a letter to the leader of every local authority in England asking them to house all people sleeping rough and to find alternative accommodation for people in hostels and night shelters by the end of the weekend, in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“It is now imperative that rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless are supported into appropriate accommodation by the end of the week,” he wrote. He went on to instruct each local authority to set up a Covid-19 rough sleeping “coordination cell” and highlighted the importance of stopping homeless people from congregating in day-centre facilities to reduce the risk of transmission. There was no new funding for this request, but Hall referred council leaders to an earlier announcement of £1.6bn for local authorities’ Covid-19 response.
In a significant departure from normal rules, he also stressed that people classified as having “no recourse to public funds” (a status given to people who are seeking asylum, or who have a limited immigration status), who normally have no right to housing support or benefits, should also be helped with emergency accommodation. But it was not clear how councils would fund this provision. The letter simply instructed them to “utilise alternative powers and funding to assist those with no recourse to public funds who require shelter and other forms of support due to the Covid-19 pandemic”.
James Jamieson, chairman of the LGA, said councils were already working hard to protect rough sleepers from becoming sick by getting them into accommodation. “To help these efforts, some councils will need to call on the government for urgent help to find accommodation and enforce this and have access to funding if they need to cover staffing and support costs,” he said.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of the homelessness charity Crisis, welcomed the government’s request, but also questioned how councils would fund the exercise. “The government’s insistence that everyone sleeping rough should be housed by the weekend is a landmark moment – and the right thing to do,” he said. “Questions remain about how local councils will be supported to do this, and whether additional funding, or assistance securing hotel rooms, will be made available. We also need to see a package of support so that, when the outbreak subsides, the outcome is not that people return to the streets.”
He said the government should now make a national appeal for empty accommodation, such as apartment blocks and hotels, to be handed over to councils so that homeless people can be accommodated.
Rough sleepers at Heathrow airport were told to move out on Thursday. Paul Atherton, a filmmaker who has been homeless for a number of years and who this week has been sleeping at Terminal 5, said dozens of homeless people had been told to move on, without clear instructions about where to go. He had not received assistance from Westminster council in getting housing on Friday and was pessimistic about the prospect of being accommodated. “The likelihood of anyone being housed before the weekend is infinitesimally small,” he said, suggesting that the government’s request would have been more powerful if it had ordered local councils to comply.
Sharon Thompson, the Birmingham councillor responsible for homelessness, said she was optimistic the city’s known rough sleepers could be rehoused – 30 had been found places to live, leaving another 20 needing help. She said the task had been made more complicated by the closure of hotels that housed people in temporary accommodation and the difficulty in getting all rough sleepers to agree to go into housing. “We won’t be scooping people off the streets unless the government tells us to. We’re not looking to go down an enforcement route,” she added.
The charity Praxis, which supports migrants and refugees, said it this week had helped a woman fleeing domestic violence into emergency charitable accommodation. She had been refused help by her local authority because she had no leave to remain. “No one should be left to fend for themselves during this global pandemic. This is a matter of public health as well as care for individuals,” the CEO, Sally Daghlian, said.
Jessie Seal, of Naccom, an organisation that last year helped accommodate 1,300 destitute migrants, said she was concerned by the lack of clarity over who was to fund housing people who have no recourse to public funds. “It is clear that local authorities need additional funding to support people with no recourse to public funds, and the Home Office must make policy-level changes to enable this. Without change from the Home Office, people will continue to be turned away from homelessness support services on the ground,” she said.
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