Campaigners demand urgent action for rough sleepers with COVID-19 in London

Activists and Islington Council reps want funding for Mildmay Hospital to take in rough sleepers diagnosed with coronavirus – and hope others across the country will do similar to stand up for the vulnerable people in their area

Activists from the Museum of Homelessness and Streets Kitchen have teamed up with Islington Council to lobby the government for funding that could offer street homeless people with coronavirus a place to receive treatment off the streets.

In a letter to Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, the signatories said they were “deeply concerned” by the lack of planning for rough sleepers in London as the COVID-19 pandemic deepens – and want ministers to fund Mildmay Hospital which “stands ready” to take in homeless people diagnosed with the virus.

Earlier this week outreach staff from the organisations offered coronavirus screening to homeless people they were working with, but realised there was little they could do for them if any came back positive.

“The guidance to call 111 and self-isolate just isn’t adequate for any of our guests,” Museum of Homelessness co-founder Jess Turtle told The Big Issue. “We spent the rest of the day and the next morning coming up with this strategy – which I understand is only effective for London but it’s at least something we can offer locally – to request that the governmentt enable Mildmay to admit homeless people who were testing positive for the virus.”

The organisations had already been supporting Mildmay Hospital’s campaign to stay open. The facility, which has a history of providing specialist treatment for those with HIV, is under threat of imminent closure due to lack of funding.

“It really seems like now it’s time for action because there are absolutely no provisions in place as far as we can tell,” Turtle said. “Mildmay is ready to serve this purpose but at the moment we can’t refer anyone as they need funding in place for staffing and to open up the beds.”

In the letter the campaigners said there was clear evidence that rough sleepers are significantly more at risk during the pandemic due to a higher rate of underlying health conditions like chronic pulmonary obstructive disease.

“Given the extreme level of risk to this population, we are asking that MHCLG divert emergency funding as soon as possible to the Mildmay Hospital which stands ready to admit patients experiencing homelessness for specialist care,” the letter said.

“We are aware that the Chancellor today pledged ‘whatever extra resources our NHS needs to cope with COVID 19.’ We strongly believe that this should extend to the Mildmay in London, specifically for the street homeless population. Mildmay is able to deliver highly focused, specialist care and this would relieve pressure on the larger NHS hospitals across the capital as the pandemic inevitably deepens.”

Resources should be directed towards the most vulnerable people first

The letter was signed by: Big Issue Changemakers Museum of Homelessness co-founders Matt and Jess Turtle, Streets Kitchen founder Jon Glackin, and Islington councillors Diarmaid Ward and Janet Burgess. They are yet to receive a response from the government.

They will convene tomorrow (Friday 13) as a taskforce for Islington to make contingency plans in case the government does not respond to their Mildmay request.

“I don’t think any of us on the ground are really getting the assistance that is required to prepare for this,” Turtle told The Big Issue. “We’re going to need to open up buildings for self-isolation purposes.

“There is a lot of anxiety on the streets right now, which is understandable. There’s the anxiety of being poorly with coronavirus and on top of that the worry having of literally no option in line with guidance for the general population. It’s absolutely disgraceful.

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“Surely resources should be directed towards the most vulnerable people first?”

Mildmay Hospital’s chief executive Geoff Coleman told the Islington Gazette: ‘We should be in the mix because we have got spare beds, they are isolated. In fact we have got a whole ward that can be isolated and given over for that, so we have the capacity.

A Government spokesperson said:  “We’re well prepared to deal with the potential impacts of coronavirus and are already working closely with local authorities to support vulnerable groups including homeless people.

“We’ve announced a £500m Hardship Fund so local authorities can support economically vulnerable people and households and we will publish further guidance for hostels and day centres shortly.”

Turtle hopes other grassroots activists across the UK will come together to demand similar provisions for their local rough sleepers.

Lucy Abraham, the chief operating officer of homelessness charity Glass Door which runs a network of shelters, told The Big Issue that it is still unclear how self-isolation will work for their guests, with up to 35 people staying in each night shelter.

The charity has brought in posters to emphasise the importance of washing hands as well as boosting the stock of hand gels kept in their vans that move between shelters.

The Big Issue has also taken the same steps to protect vendors in sales and operations offices all around the UK where they buy their magazines.