Lives will be lost among homeless people this winter without urgent action, doctors warn

Charities warn of ‘humanitarian disaster’ unless government acts to protect people from ‘double threat’ of coronavirus and cold weather

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 08 October 2020 08:49 BST
Seventeen of Britain’s leading health and homelessness organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians and Crisis, have issued a stark warning that ‘lives will be at risk' without urgent government action to protect people from the ‘double threat’ of coronavirus and cold weather
Seventeen of Britain’s leading health and homelessness organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians and Crisis, have issued a stark warning that ‘lives will be at risk' without urgent government action to protect people from the ‘double threat’ of coronavirus and cold weather (Reuters)

The UK faces a “humanitarian disaster” this winter as rough sleepers face being left without shelter due to a lack of action from ministers, medical bodies and charities have warned.

Amid reports that homelessness is on the rise, concern is mounting that the night shelters that would usually be open to rough sleepers during the winter months will be unable to operate safely due to Covid-19 restrictions, and that no alternative is being offered.

Seventeen of Britain’s leading health and homelessness organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians and Crisis, have issued a stark warning that “lives will be at risk” without urgent government action to protect people from the “double threat” of coronavirus and cold weather.

In March, the government moved over 15,000 people who were sleeping rough into emergency, self-contained accommodation, including hotels, in what the government termed the “Everyone In” scheme.

The scheme has been largely successful, and many people who were placed in hotels have now been moved into more permanent accommodation – but medical bodies and charities said the work was not over, as a growing number of people have been forced to sleep rough during the pandemic.

There are fears that with the furlough scheme closing at the end of the month and evictions having restarted in England, the number of homeless people is only set to rise further.

The coalition of organisations, which includes leading experts and a member of the government’s SAGE advisory committee, is calling on ministers to ensure everyone who is sleeping rough is given safe, self-contained accommodation, and to provide councils with “vital” funding needed to protect people from the virus.

Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, and a member of the coalition, warned that without urgent action from the ministers to keep homeless people off the streets this winter, lives would “most certainly be lost”.

“We know that the efforts made to support homeless people during the first phase of the pandemic were truly life-saving. As we enter a second wave of Covid-19, these steps need to happen again,” he added.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, another member of the group, said predictions of deaths among people who have nowhere else to go other than the streets or sleeping in communal night shelters must act as a “wake-up call” to government.

The London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also raised alarm over the lack of planning, warning in a letter to housing secretary Robert Jenrick on Wednesday that in the absence of funding for self-contained accommodation and guidance for night shelters, the city risked seeing “soaring" rates of coronavirus infections.

Jon Glackin, founder of Streets Kitchen, which supports people who are street homeless in London, said the group would usually be preparing to open night shelters at this time of year, but was unable to do so because no guidance had been issued from central government.

“We’re at a standstill. There’s nothing we can do at the moment. We have teams ready to go, but until we get the guidance to do it safely, we cannot move. And every group like us is in the same boat,” he told The Independent.

“A lot of people won’t go in over the summer, but they’ll bed down in a night shelter over the winter to keep themselves alive. They’re now coming to me and they don’t know what they’re going to do this winter, and I don’t know what to say to them.”

Mr Glackin said he believed the government had done well to house thousands of people at the start of the pandemic, but had failed to factor in the fact many have fallen homeless since the crisis started.

“There’s this misconception that everyone is in a hotel room. It’s not true. From day one we’ve been saying our services have been increasing. We’re supporting more people than this time last year,” he said.

“We’re handing out very basic survival gear because it’s running out in the streets. Nobody can get it, because there are no day centres.

“More people are going to die on the streets due to lack of shelter. People already did, but now there really is no safety net there. And we’re expecting a tsunami of homelessness.”

Andrew Mcleay, manager at Ealing Soup Kitchen, where numbers have risen from around 100 per night before the pandemic to around 140 now, said the local night shelter was closed, and that there was mounting desperation among the homeless population he supports.

“Some of our guests so badly are in a far worse state than I have ever seen them. Some are completely desperate and some even have gone completely off the rails. No one is there to help them pick up the pieces and we are now seeing more guests than ever so a lot fall through the net,” he said.

“There is one guy who has been completely shattered from Covid and being homeless and every week is so angry and irritated, when before he used to smile and joke. Others are engaging a bit more where they didn't before because I think they are realising how serious this is.”

According to a study in The Lancet, an estimated 266 deaths were avoided during the first wave of the pandemic among England’s homeless population thanks to the Everyone In scheme, as well as 21,092 infections, 1,164 hospital admissions and 338 admissions to intensive care units.

The researchers predict that failure to maintain such measures could lead to further spread of the virus and more deaths among people who are homeless. Previous studies have shown that people who are homeless are three times more likely to experience a chronic health need, including respiratory conditions.

Jessica Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, which keeps the national record for homeless deaths, and is preparing to hand out hundreds of sleeping bags to rough sleepers on World Homeless Day, said: "It's starkly obvious that without immediate action hundreds if not thousands of people are at risk of death this winter.

“People have nowhere to warm up or dry off in the day, nowhere to wash clothes and masks, nowhere to find even the smallest respite from the streets. It is clear that we are facing a humanitarian disaster this winter, as homelessness sky rockets against a backdrop of a severely compromised homelessness system.”

Cllr David Renard, Local Government Association housing spokesperson, said councils would do all they could to get rough sleepers off the streets and into safe and suitable accommodation, but that ministers must address the funding gap facing councils.

Crisis: Homelessness is rising

A spokesperson for the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “We’re determined to protect the most vulnerable in society - we took decisive action during the pandemic to protect hundreds of lives by bringing nearly 15,000 people into safe accommodation.

“Councils have been given over £4.8bn of emergency funding to deal with the immediate pressures of the pandemic - including support for rough sleepers - and over £91m in funding for interim accommodation and support services for those at risk of rough sleeping.

“Working with councils, charities and other partners we will protect vulnerable rough sleepers this winter and fund longer term accommodation and tailored support to end rough sleeping for good.”

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