Last week, the government urged local government and charities to get a roof over the head of every person in the country sleeping rough by the weekend in order to protect this vulnerable group against contracting the coronavirus Covid-19 and aiding its transmission. At least a quarter of all the UK’s street homeless are thought to be in London at any time, meaning the call put the capital’s agencies under exceptional pressure.
There were both public and private expressions of scepticism that this could be achieved in the capital, where the most recent annual report by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) said nearly 9,000 people, the highest since records began, were seen sleeping rough during financial year 2018/19. How much progress has been made?
It’s clear that the job has not yet been fully completed. However, Bill Tidnam, chief executive of leading homelessness charity Thames Reach says there has been “an unprecedented effort” by London’s rough sleeper charities, assisted by support from both national government and the Greater London Authority, and that “we’re looking at an 80 per cent reduction in the numbers sleeping rough and working hard to get the remaining 20 per cent in”. This is despite the sector working with fewer personnel than usual as their staff fall victim to the virus. Tidnam underlines that “some people on the street have complex problems”, which mean they need specialist accommodation that can be difficult to find.
St Mungo’s, another of London’s biggest street homelessness charities, said yesterday that “more than 500 people are now in empty hotel rooms with with more hotels coming on board today and into the week”. Nurses and doctors from University College London Hospital are working with St Mungo’s teams to provide food and social care support, the charity says. It also stressed its need for more personal protective equipment to help with its work providing social care for the elderly.
Major mobilisations have taken place in two parts of the capital where rough sleepers are at their highest. In Westminster, the council has paid for nearly 300 hotel rooms for rough sleepers, all but 30 within the borough and the rest nearby. The 19th floor kitchen of its City Hall headquarters in Victoria Street is being used to prepare meals for distribution to 450 homeless residents twice a day, including those now placed in hotels.
There’s been a big mobilisation too in Stratford, where the Stratford Centre indoor shopping centre has become one of the capital’s most populous and problematic rough sleeper hotspots. Newham Council secured legal permission on Saturday to close the centre, which is normally a 24-hour public right of way, between 8:00 pm and 5:00 am for a 28 day period. The borough’s Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz said the council sought the necessary power to “protect rough sleepers who bed down in the centre overnight, and others who use the centre, including workers that serve the wider community with food and other essential household items, from the risk of infection”.
Fiaz also stated that Newham had already provided “self-contained accommodation to 65 rough sleepers” as part of the wider pan-London effort but that despite this and expanded outreach provision “a steady additional rise in the number of rough sleepers” had been seen at the centre during the previous week. This is thought likely to have occurred as news of the help Newham was providing for regular rough sleepers at the centre spread among rough sleepers elsewhere. A Newham Council source warned that the council is finding itself in competition with the NHS to book hotel rooms due to the large numbers of medical professionals arriving in Newham to staff the emergency NHS Nightingale coronavirus hospital being constructed at the ExCel exhibition centre.
There has been criticism for the government from Brent Liberal Democrat councillor Anton Georgiou, who describes its request of last week as “top down” and as “totally unrealistic” without a “huge injection of finance and resource”, citing the difficulty he has had with getting help for a small number of rough sleepers in his Alperton ward since his election at a by-election in January.
He also questions Brent Council’s local response, saying it has underestimated the number of rough sleepers there are in the borough. However, Brent says it is aware of 36 rough sleepers in the borough and that this is an increase from the previously recorded total of 15 “due to the significantly changed circumstances brought about by Covid-19”. Lead cabinet member for housing and welfare reform Eleanor Southwood said the council has “provided additional self contained options for people in hostel type accommodation” and “accelerated and broadened the support we and our partners can offer to people whose homelessness is less visible”.
Photograph taken by Dave Hill at Oxford Circus on 24 March 2020. Updated, 3 April 2020.
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