Source: Mayor of London
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has warned that hundreds of homeless Londoners will be faced with an unenviable choice this winter: either spend a freezing night on the streets or risk catching coronavirus in a communal shelter.
In a letter to the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, the Mayor is demanding that vulnerable homeless Londoners be given the same protections afforded to the rest of society and is calling for guidance to be issued immediately about how winter shelters can be made COVID-secure, alongside urgent funding to ensure alternative safe accommodation.
Under normal circumstances, London’s winter night shelters would begin to open in November as temperatures drop. These facilities often offer communal sleeping space in buildings such as church halls and community hubs, making them unsuitable for complying with ‘the rule of six’. With COVID cases in the capital on the rise, the Mayor is calling for more resources to be given urgently to local authorities to set up accommodation in alternative COVID-secure locations such as hotels.
Despite this fact being well known to those working with rough sleepers, the Government has neither published any guidance to the sector on communal sleeping nor made provision to resource COVID-safe alternatives such as private rooms. This lack of direction has left charities, faith groups and other service providers facing months of uncertainty about whether they will be able to continue their lifesaving work this winter.
While there is an exception to the rule of six for ‘work, and voluntary or charitable services’, allowing the opening of winter night shelters with communal sleeping spaces would expose staff and vulnerable clients to a substantial known infection risk. This would also be contrary to health and safety advice issued to hotels and hostels serving the public, who were ordered to close dormitory accommodation during the pandemic. In addition to this, in areas where the Government decide to prohibit different households mixing, dormitory accommodation would in fact be illegal.
Track and trace is also virtually impossible with rough sleepers, who regularly change location, often with no phones, and no address. This would be the case even without the huge failings in the current testing and tracking system.
At the height of the pandemic, GLA-procured hotels accommodated nearly 1,700 homeless people as part of the Everyone In programme. This played a large part in keeping levels of infection in London’s homeless population far below those seen in other major cities. But the economic uncertainty created by the VIRUS means many new people find themselves sleeping rough in London every day and it is this group who are still on the street for whom effective and COVID-safe accommodation is a vital and pressing need.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan said: “COVID-19 has impacted Londoners all across our city – but it is the most vulnerable who are most at risk of getting seriously ill or dying from the virus. It would simply be callous and inhumane to tell rough sleepers that the price of staying off the streets this winter could be catching COVID-19. Homeless people deserve safety and protection from COVID as much as anyone – this is particularly the case given they often have underlying health conditions.
“Local authorities, charities and others supporting homeless people this winter now need urgent clarity and guidance from ministers. If current Government policy is that it is acceptable to house rough sleepers in non-COVID secure accommodation this winter it needs an immediate rethink, and more resources given to local authorities urgently to set up accommodation in alternative locations such as hotels.”
Full text of the letter below:
Further to my letter to you of 7 September and your response, I am writing to seek urgent government action on the pressing issue of rough sleeping provision over the winter months. I am increasingly concerned at the complacency and inaction from the Government at such a late stage in the year. Without a safe and robust plan, there is a real risk not only that all the positive work that we have all jointly done as part of the Everyone In programme will be undermined but also that London will see soaring COVID-19 infection rates among rough sleepers spreading to the wider community as a result.
It is vital that the Government fully funds self-contained accommodation like hotels which we know is the safest way to protect those who would otherwise be sleeping rough during this period. In addition, to ensure the safe operation of winter shelters, it is imperative that the Government publishes guidance on making these COVID-secure without further delay, and that the rules which are put in place ensure that vulnerable Londoners who have been sleeping rough are afforded the same protections as the rest of society.
Ordinarily, the range of services provided by City Hall and London’s councils for those who are street homeless, such as hostels and supported housing, is supplemented by a network of night shelters during the winter months. These shelters, consisting of shared sleeping space in church halls and other buildings, are mostly provided by faith and community groups in response to the need that they witness in their communities. The extra support and options which these shelters offer the most vulnerable in society is hugely beneficial and last year they accommodated around 700 people.
Clearly, self-contained accommodation options are preferable to shelters whatever the situation, but this is now even more so in light of the current risks of COVID-19. With only weeks to go before shelters would normally begin to open, and with one having opened already in London, the Government has neither published any guidance to the sector on communal sleeping nor made provision to fund COVID-safe alternatives.
In addition, at times of severe weather my team coordinates the London Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP), whereby London boroughs and the GLA provide an additional 700 bed spaces to prevent anyone having to sleep rough in freezing conditions. Over half of this provision has historically been communal. Communal shelter and SWEP accommodation poses a substantial risk of transmission and infection for residents, staff, the local community, and the families they interact with. While there is an exception to the rule of six for ‘work, and voluntary or charitable services’, allowing the opening of winter night shelters with communal sleeping spaces considerably larger than a household is actively exposing staff and vulnerable clients to a substantial known infection risk. It is also not clear, as many of these services are commissioned by local authorities, if this exception can be used in these circumstances or if local authorities and ourselves through our SWEP provision are potentially being asked to break these rules for rough sleepers.
This is not a risk we are taking with other sectors of the population, and guidance on Working Safely During Coronavirus for hotel and guest accommodation clearly states that “Dormitory rooms will be closed (except where housing parties from the same household or support bubble)”.
Track and trace is also virtually impossible with this group, as rough sleepers are a mobile population, often with no phones, and no addresses. In addition, many faith-based winter shelters operate only in the evenings, increasing the risk that asymptomatic COVID-positive clients will unwittingly spread the virus to those outside of the shelter in the daytime. This is in the context of a testing and tracking system which, as I have raised with Matt Hancock, is far from fully functioning.
Indeed, this is why we took swift action to close this type of accommodation in the first wave. As we see escalating prevalence in London, there would appear to be no justification for accommodating rough sleepers in the high risk accommodation which is far from COVID-secure that we closed in March. We also know there is a viable alternative, with hotels readily available, that will protect this vulnerable group. It is therefore incumbent on the Government to fully fund local authorities and the GLA to make this accommodation available, so we can save lives this winter. If such funding is not forthcoming, the Government will be knowingly exposing rough sleepers and support staff to much greater risk of infection than other sectors of the population.
We also know from the first COVID-19 wave how critical suitable isolation facilities (COVID Care) for those who are COVID positive are in containing outbreaks. Whilst there are four beds for isolating those with the highest health needs, who do not require admission to hospital, provided by the NHS, we are going to need considerably more isolation facilities if the number of cases escalates further. We know from our experience earlier this year that putting in place isolation accommodation that can support the health and social needs of this group is challenging and will require cross agency support and funding. This needs to be a critical part of your winter and second wave response, and requires funding, support and leadership nationally from across health, social care and housing.
The recently announced funding from the Next Steps Accommodation Programme is very welcome. While that funding will make an enormous difference to most of those who we are already supporting in hotels, to keep them in over the winter while we find appropriate onward options. However, it will not be sufficient to continue to support all those non-UK nationals for whom onward options in the UK cannot be found due to the immigration-based exclusions from welfare and homelessness assistance that have still not be suspended.
Moreover, this funding does not provide for the many new people who find themselves sleeping rough each day (London Councils estimate that last week there were 918 people sleeping rough in London). This winter we need to provide effective and COVID-safe options for this group.
The success of the Everyone In programme has been a rare bright light in this pandemic. But if the Government fails to urgently provide the clarity and resources needed, people sleeping rough in the capital will face the double risks of COVID and exposure to winter weather conditions over the coldest months, in addition to the already unacceptable dangers that sleeping rough presents all year round.