Thousands of rough sleepers in England are thought to remain unhoused despite an unprecedented government request to local authorities to find housing for those on the streets by Sunday evening to avert the spread of Covid-19.
After the unfunded request from the government last week, which also called for the closure of night shelters and street encampments, homelessness charities questioned whether fulfilling it would be feasible. But on Monday, charities were keen to stress that considerable progress had been made in a short space of time, with the national homelessness charity Crisis estimating that about 4,200 had been rehoused in England within a few weeks.
“It shows what you can do with money and organisation and an assertive approach from government,” Matthew Downie, director of policy at Crisis said. Birmingham city council had worked with a Holiday Inn in the centre of the city to accommodate more than 250 rough sleepers or residents of night shelters, he said, and hotel staff and charity workers were bringing people three meals a day to their rooms to allow them to isolate. Liverpool council has paid for more than 50 people to move into a newly built, unopened hotel.
Officials are concerned about the risk of transmission between people living on the streets, congregating in day shelters, and also about those who live in shelters with communal sleeping, eating and washing areas.
“There shouldn’t be too much self-congratulation about this. There are people still on the streets, and many people who won’t have eaten for days,” said Downie. “But we should recognise that it has taken a global pandemic to sort out an absolutely solvable problem; it is possible to get thousands of people off the streets and out of night shelters in the space of a week.”
Meanwile, charities dealing primarily with people who have an uncertain immigration status said they were worried that not enough support was being offered. People who have a “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) status – which is given to some asylum seekers, or people who have a limited immigration status – are not normally eligible for support from homelessness charities that rely on government funding. The question of how rehousing these people can be funded remains unresolved.
“It’s clear that NRPF conditions from the Home Office are prohibiting local authorities from supporting an extremely vulnerable groups of people,” a spokesperson for Naccom, a charity helping destitute migrants, said.
The Glass Door Homeless Charity said it had been contacted by many people who still needed urgent rehousing. “We have had one case of someone sleeping rough who has been told they must reconnect to their home country rather than being offered accommodation,” Neil Parkinson, a senior caseworker, said.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, wrote to the prime minister on Monday asking him to suspend the NRPF status. “Across London, there are tens of thousands of residents with NRPF, including delivery drivers, cleaners and NHS staff. Londoners with NRPF are at real risk of homelessness,” he said.
About 60 people were still sleeping in Terminal 5 at Heathrow on Monday night, according to Paul Atherton, a film-maker who has been homeless for a number of years and who is currently sleeping at the airport. He said he had not been given any support from outreach workers or from local councils.
The Local Government Association said councils needed more central government funding to complete the task. “Some councils continue to face challenges securing accommodation, not helped by the recent closures of hotels and caravan parks, and some insurance policies which may limit the ability of some hotel owners to take part in housing rough sleepers. We are calling on the government to increase support to those councils that are struggling to source accommodation, hire additional staff, and support the people they are accommodating – including with essential basics such as food.”
Figures for the total number of rough sleepers and homeless people in England are unreliable, but Crisis estimates that there are thousands more people still in night shelters, lying next to each other on church hall floors or still living in hostels where they have to access shared space to cook or wash.
“The real test isn’t how quickly we get people off the streets, but how permanently we can keep them off afterwards,” Downie said.
The Home Office, which is responsible for regulations around which non-UK citizens have access to public funds, said: “Nobody should find themselves starving or destitute. Measures we have brought forward such as rent and mortgage protections and food vouchers are not considered public funds and can be accessed by migrants with leave to remain.”
But charities remained concerned about the situation for people who do not have the formal “leave to remain” immigration status.