Rough sleepers facing ‘worst winter yet’, warns Labour

Coronavirus restrictions reduce communal sleeping areas for use in cold months

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Sunday 06 December 2020 23:41 GMT
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A homeless man sleeps rough in London
A homeless man sleeps rough in London (AFP via Getty Images)

Thousands of rough sleepers could be turned away from night shelters this winter because of a sharp reduction in capacity as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Labour has warned.

Research by charity HomelessLink found that one-third of homeless organisations and local authorities expect to see a decrease in numbers of beds in what shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire warned could be the “worst winter yet” for street sleepers.

She called on the government to pledge that no-one will have to spend the cold nights of winter outside.

While many rough sleepers were given emergency accommodation during the spring lockdown, recent data suggest that more people are again sleeping on the streets, said Ms Debbonaire.

Latest figures recorded 3,444 people sleeping rough in Greater London alone between July and September, of whom 1,901 were sleeping rough for the first time.

 And the UK went into the pandemic with rough sleeping at more than double its level in 2010, when Conservative-led governments took power.

In its manifesto for last year’s general election, Conservatives promised to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament” and work with local authorities to “meet the health and housing needs of people sleeping on the streets”.

“Even before the crisis, rough sleeping was a shameful sign of government failure,” said Ms Debbonnaire.

“This winter, without the last resort of night shelters, rough sleeping is more desperate than ever.

“The government promised to end rough sleeping for good – it must ensure everyone has a safe, Covid-secure place to stay this winter.”

A HomelessLink report highlighted the fact that social distancing measures mean accommodation providers are being encouraged to use self-contained units and not communal sleeping areas in buildings such as church halls and community centres.

The report also detailed concerns over the loss of volunteers during the pandemic, a shortage of places in B&Bs and hotels, and reduced staff capacity. 

With 32 per cent of providers reporting reduced capacity, the report found a “unique challenge to the application of SWEP (severe weather emergency protocol) during the forthcoming winter months”.

“Attempts to replace existing shared and communal shelters with self-contained Covid-19 secure accommodation may mean a potential reduction in capacity that cannot always be met with existing funding,” it concluded.

Labour said charities now have less than half of the usual number of volunteers and voiced concerns that foreign nationals sleeping rough will be less likely to seek assistance because of government threats of deportation.

The party called on ministers to ensure “a safe, Covid-secure place to stay this winter” for all, regardless of nationality.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said: “We’ve taken unprecedented action to support the most vulnerable people in our society during the pandemic, backed by over £700 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping this year alone.

“Operating principles to help night shelters open safely where they are required have been published –  and our comprehensive package of support will ensure councils and voluntary organisations have the tools and funding they need to support vulnerable rough sleepers off the streets this winter.”

The Everyone In campaign introduced during the first national lockdown has supported more than 29,000 people, with over 10,000 in emergency accommodation and nearly 19,000 moved on into settled accommodation.

The spokesperson pointed to the £15m Protect Programme to address the housing and health challenges of rough sleepers during coronavirus restrictions and the £10m Cold Weather Fund for local areas to bring forward self-contained and Covid-secure accommodation this winter. 

The Homelessness Winter Transformation Fund is also providing £2m for faith, community and voluntary organisations to move away from communal models for accommodating rough sleepers.

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