The government has been urged to use vacant buildings such as hotels and offices to provide “safe spaces” for the homeless during the coronavirus crisis.
Campaigners said ministers should block-book hotel rooms to provide “field hospitals” for rough-sleepers to self-isolate as the disease spreads rapidly across the UK.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran suggested offices vacated by home-working staff could also be deployed to offer “a sanitised place to eat, drink water and use the toilet”.
Homeless support groups fear the planned new laws could disproportionately affect vulnerable people who are already at increased risk from the disease.
Jon Glackin, founder of the grassroots organisation Streets Kitchen, told The Independent: “How do you self-isolate if you have nowhere to go?
“For people to self-isolate we need rooms with toilets. At this stage we really need to talk about hotels, which are sitting empty at the moment. The tourism industry has collapsed.
“We need to be talking about setting hotels up as field hospitals. That would give an immediate solution.”
A £500m hardship fund announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak in the Budget last week could be used to pay for the rooms, suggested Mr Glackin, who added he hoped leading hotel chains would “have some heart” and offer discounts to the government.
Ms Morgan said: “Police arresting homeless people without proper testing, and sending them to detention centres just doesn’t sit right.
“In order to ensure these powers are used as a last resort, the government should seek to care for homeless people and set up special services for them in disused buildings or vacated offices – providing a sanitised place to eat, drink water and use the toilet.”
“And, they should provide safe spaces for vulnerable people to self-isolate with dignity, as opposed to within a detention facility following arrest.”
Ministers on Monday issued guidance to providers of rough-sleeping services, with hostels and day centres told they do not need to close over the coronavirus outbreak “at the current time”.
The guidances states hostel residents who feel unwell “should stay in their room”. Home homeless people who fall ill at day centres “should be isolated temporarily in an area of the day centre and staff are advised to contact the local authority”, it adds.
But homelessness charity Crisis said it was “deeply concerned that the measures set out don’t go far enough”.
It called on the government and councils to “take emergency measures” to ensure people “can access self-contained accommodation with private bathrooms”.
“This should include assistance from national governments to secure hotel-style accommodation to meet the increased need,” the charity added.
Chief executive Jon Sparkes said: “The guidance we have received to-date is inadequate. It fails to set out a plan for how people experiencing homelessness can self-isolate in this outbreak.
“We need emergency action to protect people in this very vulnerable situation — this must include testing and access to housing.”
More than 28,000 people sleep rough across the UK, according to estimates based on 12 months of local government data.
Support groups told The Independent last week there was “tension in the air” among the homeless amid fears coronavirus could have a devastating impact.
“The risks of the virus reaching our shelters is increasing in likelihood by the day,” said Lucy Abraham, chief operating officer at Glass Door, which runs England’s largest network of winter night shelters.
Government spokesperson said: “We’re well prepared to deal with the potential impacts of coronavirus and are already working closely with local authorities to support vulnerable groups including homeless people.
“We’ve announced a £500 million Hardship Fund so local authorities can support economically vulnerable people and households and we have today published further guidance for hostels and day centres.”
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