Ending rough sleeping poses a particular challenge in a free society. That is because it is not only a matter of making help available, but of persuading those who need it, to accept it. Another complication is that the help required goes beyond accommodation. The lack of a bed to sleep in is invariably a symptom rather than the cause of an individual’s difficulties.
The coronavirus prompted greater urgency for the Government to take action. Ministers had already outlined in February a determination to find a long term solution – with the assistance of Dame Louise Casey.
Though this issue is a moral disgrace and source of national shame the numbers involved are relatively small. The latest snapshot survey for those sleeping rough on one particular night last autumn came up with a figure of 4,266. The BBC gave a figure of 28,000 (based on FOI requests to local authorities) of different people who had slept rough at one stage or another over 12 months.
How many have come off the streets during the coronavirus crisis? 15,000 have been provided emergency accommodation – though not all of those were rough sleepers. Some are from hostels and shelters which have had to close due to social distancing rules. Others will be those who would otherwise have got by as “sofa surfers”. There will also be those escaping domestic violence. However, there might also be around 5,000 who came straight from the streets.
What is impressive is how high the acceptance rate has been from the rough sleepers offered a room. Many have been surprised it has been so high. Only a few hundred are thought to have spurned an offer. It could be the attraction of a hotel rather than a more humble shelter. It could be fear of the coronavirus. Then there is the tough choice that getting food – or the money to buy food – while staying on the streets would be harder. As noted, coercion is not available, but the tone of encouraging people to accept help has been emphatic rather than passive.
Amidst the statistical fog, a couple of points emerge. Firstly, that in proportion to the population, the number of rough sleepers was already tiny. The population of England is 56 million. It follows that accommodating them is a relatively modest claim on the public purse. Providing for others – children, pensioners, the unemployed, the disabled – are vastly more costly items. Secondly, that the already small number sleeping on the streets before the pandemic has fallen substantially.
Dame Louise says in an interview for The Big Issue:
“I was due to do a review into rough sleeping and homelessness but we have all been turned upside down by Covid-19. The primary motivation so far was led by Covid-19 to do an extraordinary thing in unprecedented times, which was to say, “Let’s just get everyone in.” We had everybody getting on the phone to hotels, getting [charities] St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Look Ahead in London to stand up enough staff to literally in a couple of weeks add to the estate in London by 2,000 beds.
“We were chasing the virus just trying to stay ahead of it. When the inquiry eventually comes saying: “How did you do it? Why did you do it? And what choices did you make?” We just went for it, everybody went for it. We had to get everybody in, we cannot have people dying on the streets. And we cannot have people dying in communal night shelters and that is the prospect that we were facing. We need to be clear that right now we are dealing with this extraordinary situation where 15,000 people have been accommodated at this time.
“I’m not saying that we don’t want to work out how do we not return to the situation that we have seen in the last few years. But our primary purpose so far has been to keep people safe. That will remain our primary purpose, but at the same time we feel that we should see this as an opportunity to think that we can get something extraordinary out of this but that will take an extraordinary effort. The homelessness sector itself and the wider community also needs to think, at this horrific time in our nation’s history, what they can do to help as opposed to what they call on the government to do.”
Jeremy Swain, the Government’s adviser on homelessness, was also interviewed. He said:
“I was involved with Housing First in the 1990s and I’m a big fan, but the problem is there is a slight danger that we think that everybody in those hotels at the moment needs wraparound support and they need it for a long time. What we need to be doing, as well as getting people into housing, is to get people into work. And that is what they are wanting. That’s what they want – when I was at Thames Reach and you put out the questionnaires, 75 per cent of people wanted the services to help them get jobs. Consistently it is bottom of the list for the homelessness sector when for the people themselves it is top of the list.”
That is the tricky part. Amidst Government spending of £850 billion a year, funding an extra 5,000 hostel beds is a footling item. (That’s even before we consider the £10 billion a year we give to charity, often to help the homeless.) Getting those who have taken a wrong turn in life back on the path to proud, independent, and responsible existence is harder. Getting a job would be a pretty obvious ambition. Often that will mean overcoming such afflictions as drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness. When I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham I found that very little specialist accommodation was provided – even though the Council had a very substantial Public Health budget which was largely wasted.
Many of those in emergency accommodation have been put up in hotels that would otherwise be empty. It is welcome that hotels are going back to normal business as the economy reopens. That does mean that alternative places to stay are needed – though some hotels are extended their contracts for emergency accommodation. Some universities have made rooms available in their halls of residence – after all college authorities need the money and these rooms would otherwise be empty at present. Some YMCA hostels have single rooms. Then councils have managed to find rooms for some in the private rented sector.
In the long term though, the Government plans new hostel places for 6,000. Much of this will be for specialist housing to cater for particular medical conditions. That will be crucial for these unfortunate souls to have their lives turned around.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” declared Winston Churchill. The signs are encouraging with respect to the impact of the pandemic on rough sleeping. A passive response from the authorities to those sleeping in shop doorways and along underpasses is no longer acceptable. Most of those people have already made some reconnection with society and there is every chance that it will not be broken.