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"A nice prison"

Updated: Jul 31

On 26 March, the Minister for Homelessness and Local Government (MHCLG) wrote to local authorities outlining a ‘joint responsibility to safeguard as many homeless people as we can from COVID-19.’



Targets of reducing rough sleeping were reduced from years to days. Offers of accommodation were made at an accelerated speed. Huge amounts of work took place from national and local government, statutory and non-statutory services, paid staff and volunteers, getting people into bed and breakfasts, hotels, hostels and the private rented sector.

The MHCLG estimate that ‘5,400 vulnerable rough sleepers (were) helped off the streets and from communal shelters during pandemic,’ with an offer of accommodation to ‘90% of those on the streets at the beginning of the crisis and known to local authorities.’ It cannot be underestimated how much has been done so quickly, and the work of individual people to support others during a time of great stress should be recognised and celebrated for many years to come.

But many people still remain on the streets. And for many who have not ‘been there’ this will be a puzzle. With increased resource and impetus, and a dangerous virus spreading in the open spaces - particularly of risk to people who are rough sleeping and are more likely to have underlying health conditions – surely everyone would have been moved off the street.

I am in a fortunate position to work with people from around the country who have experienced and understand multiple disadvantage, and who use their skills and talents to bring about positive social change. Every week I listen to incredible wisdom about what is happening, and what needs to happen if we are to end homelessness. No one is surprised that many people remain on the streets.

It is reasonable to assume that most people want to stay safe. And for many, before and during this crisis, it feels safer to be on the streets.

Social distancing can be practiced outside, but many historical accommodation projects responding to rough sleeping use congregate spaces, where people are surrounded by strangers and social distancing is impossible. Although in the short-term the use of these spaces is reducing, questions remain over their use in the long-term, and what will happen to people who have taken up accommodation offers whenever social distancing measures reduce.


Many people feel that current measures are simply a means of protecting the health of the wider public, rather than out of concern for their own personal wellbeing. For those of us, the real work to be done is not in offering accommodation, but in offering trust, and love.

Some are fearful of a move inside, of being confined in a fixed location without access to networks and support they may need with substance misuse or mental health difficulties. As one of our Panel put it…

“They can have the best of all accommodation, they can have the best of everything they think want, but they’re not getting what they need. So you’re just taking them and putting them in a nice prison. That’s torture, that’s mental torture … from being outside, to be stuck in a small room with no extra help.” Member of our National Expert Panel

And for many people experiencing multiple disadvantage – 85% of whom have experienced childhood trauma – new offers of accommodation may be no different to the potentially re-traumatising offers previously rejected.

“They’re struggling to accept the offer of the hostels because they know it’s going to be restrictive. It’s going to be rules and regulations and them having to expend their whole life story over again with no real support to address the issues that come out. You ask people to devote their deepest darkest secrets, and you just write it down in a hostel. There’s no thought plan about how do we care for this person once they’re with us.” Member of our National Expert Panel

“When you’re out there you’re survival instinct just wants to survive, it don’t want to do what other people are telling you to do. To be took out of your comfort zone is a big part in recovery, and it can be done too soon to people who are really vulnerable.” Member of our National Expert Panel

There also remains a lack of flexibility in some areas to people who been previously barred from a service/services and thereby deemed by the council as being ineligible for a further offer.

“It’s very difficult in the current climate to protect and safeguard [people who have been barred from services]. At the moment they are the most vulnerable in my eyes because they’re not accessing services and potentially services they want to access they can’t… The last few weeks have been the most frustrating few weeks for me as a worker. I’ve never had to tell so many people that there is no offer of accommodation.” Member of our National Expert Panel

But through this crisis some positive practice is occurring. In some areas, the hotels are taking a highly effective approach – similar (but different) to the successful Housing First model - by giving people unconditional shelter without potentially traumatising practices and restrictions.

“Hotels work because they’re not restricted there. They are having a choice in their comings and goings. They’re content there. There’s no room checks. They’re not having to sign an agreement saying that I mustn’t smoke here or I must do this or I have to go to a key worker session. They don’t want to leave the hotels because they like it there.” Member of our National Expert Panel

We must learn from the measures taken in the last few weeks, but the great work done by so many in such a short space of time will be undone if is treated simply as a short term emergency measure to protect the public. With many still finding greater safety on the streets, it should now be clearer than ever that ending rough sleeping does not simply mean an offer of accommodation. We should give people what they need.

 

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