Protecting people experiencing homelessness from the coronavirus

    Our Executive Director of Strategy and Policy, Dominic Williamson, outlines what the Government must do to protect both our staff and people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.

    These certainly are unprecedented times.

    With supermarket shelves bare and new restrictions being announced daily, we are in the middle of something the likes of which few of us have ever had to experience.

    As an organisation, the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic has well and truly been understood. Our top priority is to do everything we can to protect the safety and wellbeing of our clients and our staff.

    Staff at our outreach, advice and accommodation services are currently working around the clock to respond to the latest public health guidance, and prepare for further restrictions on daily life to help reduce the spread of the virus.

    Our staff are experts in providing specialist support to people to move off the street and to sustain their tenancy. It is crucial that they can continue to work throughout this crisis.

    People who are homeless commonly suffer from long-term health problems, which are exacerbated for those who sleep rough. Many of our clients need help to cope with complex problems such as poor mental health, drug and alcohol problems and domestic abuse – so it is essential that our services keep running.

    If services are not able to maintain minimum staffing levels throughout the coronavirus crisis, then thousands more people could be forced to sleep rough, placing unbearable pressure on the NHS.

    This is why we have been calling on the Government to include everyone working in the homelessness sector as key workers, recognising their role as critical and prioritising their children for access to school and nursery.

    The Government has listened and included ‘charities and workers delivering key frontline services’ in the list of key workers. This is very welcome news indeed.

    We recognise things are moving quickly, but we still need further action to protect people facing homelessness as the pandemic develops. We are working alongside other homelessness charities to call on the Government to introduce further urgent measures, including:

    • Funding for councils to pay for housing or hotel-style accommodation where people sleeping rough or living in shelters and hostels can self-isolate if they need to. This requires a commitment to go beyond the £3.2m already earmarked to help councils find accommodation for people sleeping rough.
    • Ensuring that people sleeping rough and living shelters and hostels have access to testing for the virus and healthcare assistance.
    • Proving Personal Protection Equipment and testing for people working in homelessness services.
    • Removing legal barriers in the homelessness legislation so that anyone who is at risk of, or is already homeless, is provided with accommodation. This should also include a suspension of rules that prevent people with no recourse to public funds from getting help with housing and homelessness.
    • Support through the welfare system to protect those who face homelessness. This means making sure people do not have to wait five weeks for, or have to take out a loan before their first Universal Credit payment, as well as suspending automatic debt deductions and benefit sanctions, and ensuring that people are not subject to impossible work search activity. Government should also increase support for housing costs through the welfare system in order to prevent people becoming homeless.

    There is little doubt we need to avoid adding to the huge strain on NHS and emergency services, as well as save the lives of vulnerable groups. The homelessness sector can do a great deal to support this effort if the measures above are taken.

    Above all, the impact of the coronavirus on people already struggling with homelessness must be understood and the response must be compassionate.

    The action from Government to ban new evictions during the crisis is a welcome example. We hope this approach will continue.

    If you see someone sleeping rough, please let StreetLink know so they can help connect them to local services. Or in a medical emergency call 999.

    Find out more on how you can help during the coronavirus crisis.

    Our Women’s Strategy turns 1

    Today is International Women’s Day, and Cat Glew, our Women’s Strategy Manager, celebrates the first anniversary of our Women’s Strategy, and shares details of our exciting projects for the year ahead.

    Today, on Sunday 8 March 2020, the world is celebrating International Women’s Day – and St Mungo’s is celebrating the first birthday of our Women’s Strategy!

    A lot has changed in 12 months at St Mungo’s and beyond. Across the world and in our services, women are facing challenges to their rights and their safety that we can’t ignore.

    The UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) has published a new Gender Social Norms Index warning that progress towards gender equality is slowing worldwide. Nearly nine in 10 people across the world hold some bias against women.

    The data showed that half of men and women think that men make better political leaders, and four in 10 think men make better business executives. Twenty-eight per cent of people think it is justified for a man to beat his wife.

    Progress is possible, even if it does feel far too slow. Last week saw the return of the Domestic Abuse Bill to Parliament, more than two years since it was first introduced. Along with the commitments to tackle rough sleeping made by the Government, the new bill offers a once in a generation opportunity to make sure the voices of women who are homeless and sleeping rough are heard by those in power.

    What’s changed since the launch of our Women’s Strategy

    It has never been more important to build alliances and partnerships with women’s organisations so that our clients can have access to the specialist support they deserve. This year, we were delighted to be awarded funding from the Homeless Link Ending Women’s Homelessness Fund for a partnership project led by Standing Together Against Domestic Violence.

    The Safety by Experience project will develop bespoke tools for homelessness services working to end violence against women. We’ll be working with clients to ask what safety advice they would give other women in homelessness settings, and with staff to create tools that fit our services much better.

    We’ve also made progress towards our Domestic Abuse Housing Alliance accreditation this year. We’ve got new domestic abuse training and e-learning available for staff, along with an updated domestic abuse policy, quick guide, posters and leaflets.

    The Women’s Strategy work has focussed this year on our core challenge – creating an environment of physical and emotional safety for women, who are at disproportionate risk of harm from those they love and trust. But as the strategy enters its second year, it’s also time for a positive celebration of the strength and resilience of our female clients and women’s services.

    The Government wants to end rough sleeping, is it going about it the right way?

    Last week the Government released new figures on the number of people sleeping rough in England. Our Head of Policy, Campaigns and Research, Bea Orchard, takes a deeper look at the figures.

    It’s not unusual for election promises to be greeted with scepticism, and perhaps many took this view of the Conservative Party manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping. It’s still very early days, but since the election in December there have been some positive signs the Government is determined to achieve its target of ending rough sleeping by 2024.

    The Prime Minister has made two visits to homelessness services in London to talk about the commitment, the Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI) Fund has been extended and expanded beyond 2019/20, and last week a further £236m was announced for ‘housing first style’ accommodation to support up to 6,000 people away from sleeping on the street.

    The annual rough sleeping statistics for England were also published last week, providing an opportunity to scrutinise progress so far, and the distance still to travel.

    What do the latest rough sleeping statistics tell us?

    The statistics show the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in England in autumn 2019. They show a 9% decrease taking the total number from 4,677 in 2018 to 4,266 in 2019. This is the second year in a row the number has fallen, which is something of a relief, given the truly shocking rate at which rough sleeping had been rising since 2010.

    However, the number of people sleeping rough on a single night in 2019 is still 141% higher than in 2010 when the current method for recording rough sleeping was introduced.

    A more detailed look at the statistics suggests some of the measures taken by government as part of the Rough Sleeping Strategy are having a positive impact. 244 local authority areas have now received some funding from the RSI Fund since it was introduced in March 2018 and overall these areas reported a 12% decrease in rough sleeping in 2019, compared to the previous year. While rough sleeping in the 73 areas without any funding has continued to rise.

    Not all areas in receipt of RSI funding reported a fall in the number sleeping rough locally. And only 50% of areas in receipt of funding for the first time in 2019 reported a decrease. This should be a reminder that services supporting people to find and keep a home take time to set up, and that new and expanded services are likely to find people who weren’t getting any help before.

    However, it should also be a reminder to government that funding for outreach services and short-term accommodation can only do so much when wider factors such as cuts to council budgets, housing benefit and a shortage of social housing mean more people are pushed into homelessness in the first place and struggle to get the long-term support they need to recover.

    How helpful are the statistics?

    The statistics are widely criticised for not offering a more accurate account of the total number of people sleeping rough over the entire year, rather than on one night. What they do offer is a useful indicator of the relative size of the problem and particular trends which can be monitored over many years. This is essential for holding the Government to account and keeping ministers focused on ensuring a significant, sustained reduction in the number of people exposed to the dangers of sleeping rough.

    Can government action end rough sleeping?

    St Mungo’s is calling on government action to end rough sleeping because we know it can be done. By 2010, 20 years of government action meant the end of rough sleeping was in sight.

    We also know that since 2008, nearly £1bn has been cut from vital homelessness services. Services that provide specialist one-to-one support to help people cope with complex problems like poor mental health, substance use and domestic abuse, and prevent people from sleeping rough in the first place by helping them before they become homeless.

    If the Government is going to end rough sleeping in a sustainable way, then it needs to restore funding to the levels invested before the financial crash and ensure that this funding is maintained long-term. This is why we are calling on government to invest an extra £1bn every year in services that prevent homelessness and end rough sleeping and ring-fence the money so it can’t be spent on anything else.

    726 people died while sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation in 2018. The consequences of not taking further action to prevent homelessness and end rough sleeping should be unthinkable.

    We’re certainly not planning to let the Government lose sight of its commitment on this crucial issue.

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