The current Covid-19 pandemic may have unleashed a wave of horror across the globe, but has also made something remarkable happen: it has prompted the UK government to tackle the crisis of rough sleeping that was engulfing our country.
Between 2009 and 2019 there were huge increases in the numbers of rough sleepers across the country. Official figures show that across England rough sleeping increased by 141% to over 4,000.
Just before Christmas 2019, the prime minister announced that the government was committed to ending rough sleeping by November 2024, three years earlier than originally planned
This was not the first time that a government has pledged to end the scourge of rough sleeping and few of us working in the sector were holding our breath. And when Covid-19 hit, I suspect I wasn’t alone in anticipating that that the pledge would be quietly forgotten.
But following the announcement of lockdown at the beginning of March, people realised that rough sleepers were the one group physically unable to follow the government advice to stay home. They were not only at enhanced risk of contracting the virus, but they were also a huge potential risk to the rest of population.
Whichever of these motivations was uppermost in the mind of the government, something remarkable undoubtedly happened. Because here we are, at the end of May, and the problem of rough sleeping in England has been massively reduced.
It is certainly not the case that rough sleeping has been completely eradicated, but the drop has been huge. MHCLG believe that around 6,000 former rough sleepers have been off the streets – which is remarkable considering that official figures assured us that there were only 4266 rough sleepers to start with.
Two factors have driven this. First, on 27 March the government’s new homelessness tsar, Dame Louise Casey, wrote to homelessness managers and rough sleeping coordinators demanding action within 72 hours to get all rough sleepers off the streets. and by 15 April offers of safe accommodation had been made to 90% of rough sleepers. £3.2m of emergency government funding was to be divided up between councils to enable this to happen.
At the same time, the factors that often kept people on the streets in the past were all withdrawn. Many people struggle with the idea that some people choose to sleep rough. But the rather messy reality is that for a variety of reasons some people can mistakenly believe that it is in their best interests to remain on the streets. Part of this is undoubtedly linked to the generosity of the public, who will often give money to beggars who they see out on the streets. And the years since the 2008 crash have seen a significant increase in street kitchens and soup runs delivering free food to those on the streets. Overnight those two sources of sustenance were greatly reduced. With the country in lockdown there were very few people to beg from, and it was no longer possible for many groups to go our delivering free food. With people unable to access free food and cash handouts, and blood curdling stories emerging in the press of the threat posed by Covid-19, the balance of judgment for many rough sleepers began to change.
We should also recognise that being offered accommodation in a Travelodge is, from a rough sleeper’s perspective, a materially different proposition to being offered accommodation in most homeless hostels.
All of these factors have combined to reduce rough sleeping hugely over the course of the pandemic. We can’t carry out rough sleeper counts at the moment, but most local authorities feel that they have done everything that they reasonably can to encourage people to take up offers of accommodation. At a recent webinar on the subject former Thames Reach chief executive, Jeremy Swain, who is now working for MHCLG on this issue, said that from his personal experience he had seen people being rehoused who had not accessed accommodation services for years.
All of this is to be applauded. Whoever is responsible and whatever their motivations, the simple fact is that about 6,000 people previously sleeping rough are now being housed safely and securely. With a bit of political will the end of rough sleeping – something I have been working towards for twenty-eight years – is now a wholly realistic possibility.
But expenditure on achieving this remarkable result has already gone well beyond the £3.2m funding originally provided. One local authority director of housing I spoke to said that his council had spent the whole of their £17,000 allowance within two days. So once the government made it clear that funding for the £3.2m ‘Everyone In’ programme was not being extended the question immediately became, what will happen next? At some point hotel chains will want their rooms back and homes will have to be found for those who are otherwise faced with the prospect of returning to the streets.
Well this week the government finally announced their plan for locking in the recent gains. Crucially their ambitious commitment to ending rough sleeping for good will be backed by £160 million of funding this year and will support many of the thousands of rough sleepers currently housed in emergency accommodation to move on to more sustainable, long-term housing.
£381 million had already been announced for rough sleeping services in the Chancellor’s Budget statement. This is now extended to £433 million – funding which will ensure that 6,000 new housing units will be put into the system, with 3,300 of these becoming available in the next 12 months. Yet the good news doesn’t end there. In addition to accelerating the capital spend for investment in housing stock, the government has also recognised that providing accommodation units is not the only thing required. So it is particularly to be welcomed that the new funding also increases the revenue support element of the total programme by 37%. This will help to ensure that the rough sleepers have support to help them stay off the streets for good.
With huge strides having been made to eradicate rough sleeping more quickly than any of us could have envisaged, it would pile tragedy upon tragedy for people who have currently been rehoused to be turned back out onto the street. This week’s announcement greatly reduces the chances of that happening – at least for the majority. But the clock is undoubtedly ticking. The homelessness sector now needs to mobilise quickly to ensure that we can maintain the fantastic progress that has been made.
Over the coming weeks, government will work in partnership with councils, local leaders and the property sector to ensure this new generation of housing for some of the most vulnerable in society is delivered as quickly as possible and in the most cost-effective way.
YMCA Heart of England is committed to working with our local authority partners across Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire to playing our part to keeping people off the streets. We are encouraged to see that there is a real determination in Whitehall and in town halls across the country to take this historic opportunity to end rough sleeping for good backed up by substantial funding. This means that this shared goal really is tantalisingly within our grasp. Already we have met with local authority partners about the part that we can play. We are also beginning to have conversations with universities and other landlords about accessing accommodation that is likely to be left vacant because of a drop in foreign student numbers. And we are drawing up plans to build new small-scale schemes for rough sleepers so that, as student numbers rebuild, we don’t lose capacity to deal with the problem.
I’ve worked in the fields of housing and homelessness for twenty-eight years and for most of that time I have moaned about government inaction and inadequate funding. Covid-19 has changed the dynamic radically – there is now a collective belief across government and the voluntary sector that we have an historic opportunity to vastly reduce the problem of rough sleeping in this country. YMCA heart of England is determined to play its part in doing just that.
Alan Fraser is Group Chief Executive of YMCA Heart of England.