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Among the many impacts of the Coronavirus crisis, one is that many hotels are sitting empty. Another is that ending rough sleeping has additional importance, in order to prevent the spread of the disease. The good news is that the first difficulty offers the potential to help with the second.
Luke Hall, the Minister for Local Government and Homelessness, has written to council leaders to outline the plan. He says:
“Our strategy must be to bring in those on the streets to protect their health and stop wider transmission, particularly in hot spot areas, and those in assessment centres and shelters that are unable to comply with social distancing advice. This approach aims to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on people facing homelessness and ultimately on preventing deaths during this public health emergency. Given the nature of the emergency, the priority is to ensure that the NHS and medical services are able to cope and we have built this strategy based on NHS medical guidance and support.”
As well as for those sleeping rough, it will seek alternative accommodation for “those who are in accommodation where it is difficult to self-isolate, such as shelters and assessment centres.”
Hall asks councils to proceed with “urgently procuring accommodation for people on the streets if you have not already done so – MHCLG will support you to do so if you are struggling to procure sufficient units.” Councils are also asked to “get the social care basics such as food, and clinician care to people who need it in the self-contained accommodation. It is likely that you will need to utilise your commissioned homeless services to provide support to people in this accommodation and we urge you to work with the commissioned and non-commissioned sector to make sure there are adequate levels of support provided.” They are also given responsibility for “if possible, separating people who have significant drug and alcohol needs from those who do not.”
The Minister adds:
“We know that this requires funding. Last week, the Government announced £1.6bn for local authorities to respond to other COVID-19 pressures including for services helping the most vulnerable, including homeless people. This grant will cover all costs incurred in the first phase of the response, but we will keep future funding need under review. To support our understanding of what authorities or additional funding is likely to be required we will be working with local authorities to develop an ongoing assessment of costs.”
Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary tweets:
“Major hotel chains must play their part in supporting the vulnerable during the #coronavirus emergency. Hotels that provide rooms for the #homeless or could do so, should remain open. They are not being asked to close. This is a national effort.”
A lot of progress has already been made. Over a week ago the Mayor of London, together with the London boroughs and the Government, secured 300 hotel rooms in which rough sleepers can self-isolate over the coming weeks. The deal is with Intercontinental Hotels Group, owners of Holiday Inn, to block-book the rooms in two London hotels for the next 12 weeks.
The Government had already announced in February to “end the blight of rough sleeping.”
How effective will the initiative be? There are over 100,000 hotel rooms in London alone. So only a very small proportion would be needed. Some companies might be concerned about the safety of their staff. But that is why separating those with particular difficulties – mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism – should help.
Obviously for the rough sleepers, getting the specialist help they need. But also that the hotels willing to take those whose behaviour is “challenging” would be offered the extra help needed to ensure good order is maintained.
Nor will it be a great difficulty finding the rough sleepers. Sometimes it is called a “hidden” problem. But mostly the authorities – the police and the Council housing teams – have “engaged” with rough sleepers and have a reasonable level of knowledge of their circumstances.
The biggest difficulty is likely to be with those who are resistant to being helped. This is the point that is ignored by those who simply claim that the number sleeping rough shows that society, the Government, is “uncaring.”
Each case is different. The BBC interviewed Kris, a Big Issue vendor. He is accepting hotel accommodation as he can’t get another money to live on with fall in the number of sales he can achieve. They also spoke to Darren who is also taking up the offer of a bed for the night – but reluctantly, as it means being separated from his dog.
Danny Kruger, the Conservative MP for Devizes, tweets that every rough sleeper in Wiltshire has been contacted and all but three have accepted accommodation. Wiltshire had 18 of them in the last “snapshot”.
So if Kruger’s figures are reflected elsewhere that would be encouraging. One unknown is how many will stay in a hotel for a night or two but then decide to go back on the streets.
Should force be used for those who insist on continuing to sleep on park benches and alleyways? Such actions would make a compassionate policy that has broad support rather more authoritarian and controversial. Nor would rounding up the rough sleepers be a role that the police would be likely to relish.
There is a more positive aspect to this. Some of those who have been able to drift along, living on the streets, have been sustained by being given money, food, or payments for the Big Issue. With the streets empty and the income sources removed, a tough but better choice is being forced upon them. In order to have food they are also going to have to agree to a bed to sleep in. That may also set them on course to accept the more complicated assistance they need. Perhaps for some of them, the Coronvirus crisis will mean that their personal crisis ends and a more fulfilled life can begin.