St Mungo’s teams were part of the Government’s initiative to get “Everyone In” due to the outbreak of Covid-19. Ed Addison, who manages one of our outreach teams, shares his first-hand experience of supporting people sleeping rough during lockdown. He explains how the response to the pandemic has been a turning point for many people who have been on the streets for years.
“It was 19 March when the gravity of the situation with Covid-19 hit home for me. I was out on an early shift speaking with George* , a well-informed, articulate man in his 50s. George has been sleeping rough for a couple of years but he is reluctant to accept help.
One of the most challenging parts of my job is trying to engage with people like George. So many people who sleep rough have been let down by people in positions of trust throughout their lives.
One bad experience can set the tone for all future relationships. As outreach workers, we are the first point of contact and we are often met with distrust.
But at the beginning of the outbreak, it was more important than ever that we do all we can to support people who are disconnected from society. We were asked by local government to make sure we got everybody indoors due to the potential health risk of Covid-19. By that point, we were also hearing about the possibility of a lockdown. I knew that, once the streets emptied and shops closed, George would struggle to find food.
I use different techniques to encourage people like George to accept support. One method is to use your knowledge of rough sleeping to explain just how dangerous it is. In this case I also tried to turn the concern around the virus as a tool to encourage him to come inside. He countered my points by saying that it was his choice to live his life on the streets, and that he was prepared to die on the streets.
I gave him my number and urged him to reconsider. Working for a homelessness charity it is impossible to distance yourself from the wider housing system. People who end up on the streets can be some of the most disconnected from the system, people who have fallen through a safety net that has become increasingly unsafe.
Years of austerity has impacted on the shrinking of local authority budgets and reduced the number of services available to people in need. In a broken system, is it any wonder that people are reluctant to trust us? Yet what we and others achieved is remarkable in such a short space of time.
Within a few months of lockdown measures being announced, the outreach team I manage accommodated more than 100 people in hotel rooms, many of whom were people seen sleeping out for the first time. We have been able to support people who have been sleeping rough for 10, 15, even 20 years. In the first week of the lockdown we were able to support 12 people into drug treatment who, between them, have a cumulative rough sleeping history of 70 years.