Rough sleepers have been identified as an at-risk group who are vulnerable to contracting and spreading Covid-19. The Government has commissioned its rough sleeping adviser, Dame Louise Casey, to lead its response to Covid-19 and rough sleeping. As part of the Government’s strategy, local authorities (LAs) have been asked to house all rough sleepers. 

What action is the Government taking? 

In a letter to LAs in England, Minister for Local Government and Homelessness Luke Hall set out the Government’s strategy to reduce the impact of Covid-19 on those who are, or are at risk of, sleeping rough. He instructed local leaders to: 

  • Set up local coordination cells to plan and manage responses to Covid-19 and rough sleeping. The cells will coordinate the activities of the local authority (housing, social care, and public health) and local NHS partners.  
  • Stop homeless people from congregating in places such as day centres and street encampments. 
  • Urgently secure accommodation for people on the streets. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will support authorities who are struggling to get enough units. 
  • Triage people into three groups: those with symptoms of Covid-19; those with pre-existing conditions but without symptoms; and those without either symptoms or pre-existing conditions. 

Mr Hall referred local leaders to the Government’s announcement on 19 March that it would provide £1.6 billion for local authorities to respond to Covid-19 pressures, including for services helping the most vulnerable, such as homeless people. Mr Hall said that the need for future funding would be kept under review.  

The letter was issued to local leaders on Friday 27 March. In the letter, Mr Hall said that it was “imperative” that rough sleepers were supported into appropriate accommodation by the end of the week. The chief executive of Crisis, John Sparkes, described the Government’s request as a “landmark moment”. However, he said that questions remained about how local authorities would be supported and funded. James Jamieson, chair of the Local Government Association (LGA), said that authorities would need the Government’s “urgent help” to enforce and implement the new strategy.  

Progress so far 

On Monday 30 March it was reported that there were still many rough sleepers who remained unhoused. The LGA has said that it needs further central government funding and support to complete the task. Homelessness charities have expressed concern that those still sleeping rough are at an increased risk because of the loss of services such as soup kitchens.  

Crisis welcomed the progress made in a short space of time. It estimated that about 4,200 people have been rehoused in England within a few weeks. However, it argued that the “real test” will be how these people can be kept off the streets permanently. It has also cautioned that for the strategy to be successful, continued support is needed. 

What accommodation is available? 

The Government has confirmed that hotels, hostels and bed and breakfasts (B&Bs) that are offering accommodation to vulnerable people, such as rough sleepers, are exempt from the government order for non-essential businesses and venues to close.  

The Government said that hotels, hostels and B&Bs that were providing rooms to support homeless people, through arrangements with local authorities and other public bodies, should remain open. 

Several hotels have offered help. For example on 20 March, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, with the support of the Government, secured 300 central London rooms for rough sleepers. The Mayor’s office worked with Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG) to block book rooms in two London hotels for 12 weeks at a discounted rate. London has seen the highest number of cases of Covid-19.  

It has been reported that Birmingham City Council is working with a city-centre Holiday Inn to accommodate more than 250 rough sleepers or residents of night shelters. Liverpool City Council has paid for more than 50 people to move into a newly built, unopened hotel. 

Why are rough sleepers so vulnerable? 

People sleeping rough have been identified as an at-risk group of individuals for contracting and spreading Covid-19. This is because of several factors: 

  • Many live in settings where it is difficult to self-isolate, such as encampments, shelters, and abandoned buildings.  
  • They do not have regular access to basic hygiene supplies or showering facilities. 
  • Many rough sleepers have chronic mental and physical conditions. 
  • There are high rates of substance abuse, including the sharing of needles. 
  • They have less access to care, which could lead to problems with screening, quarantining, and treating people with Covid-19. 
  • Many rough sleepers move around more than individuals in the general population, making it harder to track and treat those who need care and increasing the risk of the disease spreading. 

Writing in the Lancet, Jack Tsai and Michal Wilson highlighted that lockdowns and disease containment strategies may have a negative impact on the mental health of people sleeping rough. Many of these individuals fear involuntary hospitalisation and incarceration. 

How many rough sleepers are there? 

There were 4,266 people estimated to be sleeping rough in England on a single night in autumn 2019, 1,136 of whom were in London. Most people sleeping rough in England were male, aged over 26 years old and from the UK. 

People sleeping rough are defined as those sleeping or about to bed down in open air locations and other places including tents and make-shift shelters. The snapshot does not include people in hostels or shelters, sofa surfers or those in recreational or organised protest, squatter, or traveller campsites.  

What is the Government’s rough sleeping initiative? 

Since March 2018, the Government’s rough sleeping initiative (RSI) has funded local authorities to provide specialist services to help the most vulnerable people in society off the streets and into secure accommodation. As of February 2020, over three quarters of local authorities in England were part of the initiative. It is part of the Government’s rough sleeping strategy to end rough sleeping by the end of the current parliament

In January 2020, the Government announced allocations of a £112 million RSI fund for local councils for 2020/21. It said that the allocations would be used by LAs, charities and other organisations in around 270 areas and would fund up to 6,000 bed spaces and 2,500 staff. 

Image by  josemdelaa from Pixabay.