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.