Big Issue Vendor

‘Lives will be lost’ without action on winter homelessness

The combined threat of Covid-19 and winter conditions means we are “staring down the barrel of the worst winter we have ever seen" for homeless people
Image credit: Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr

Frontline campaigners and doctors are warning of a serious risk to life as homeless people face the double threat of winter and Covid-19.

Crisis, St Mungo’s, the Royal College of Physicians and members of the Government’s own SAGE advisory committee are among the 18 groups calling on ministers to move all rough sleepers into self-contained accommodation where the spread of the coronavirus can be stemmed.

The experts are concerned that cold weather will trigger a rise in people in communal night shelters, with councils no longer funded to move rough sleepers into hotels as they were at the beginning of lockdown – which saved 266 lives, according to University College London research.

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said the reality of what could happen this winter without Government intervention was “terrifying”.

He added: “Predictions of deaths among people who have nowhere else to go, other than our streets, or sleeping in communal night shelters that are not COVID-secure, must act as a wake-up call to Government.

“We cannot have hundreds, or even thousands of people forced to live in crowded places, where proper social distancing is impossible, and the risk of coronavirus transmission is incredibly high. The ‘Everyone In’ scheme saw unprecedented efforts to protect people, and undoubtedly saved lives – this must be repeated. As we face a second wave of coronavirus, Government must provide somewhere for each and every person sleeping on our streets to live and self-isolate safely.”

Social distancing in shelters will be “all but impossible”, said campaign group Crisis, and particularly dangerous due to the prevalence of chronic health conditions among homeless people. The recession means more and more people will fall into homeless, they added, while other countries which have kept night shelters open during the pandemic have seen a rise in deaths.

Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians said: “This winter is set to be one of the hardest we’ve faced, particularly with the added pressure of Covid-19. For those who are homeless, or who have been pushed into homelessness by the pandemic, the threat is even more acute.

“We know that the efforts made to support homeless people during the first phase of the pandemic were truly life-saving. As we enter a second wave of Covid-19, these steps need to happen again.

“Without urgent action from the government to keep homeless people off the streets this winter, lives will most certainly be lost.”

The call comes as a London rough-sleeping taskforce prepares to ramp up support for those on the streets this World Homeless Day, Saturday October 10. The Museum of Homelessness, The Outside Project and Streets Kitchen will be handing out hundreds of sleeping bags to make sure rough sleepers have the basics heading into winter.

They’re appealing to the public for donations of new socks, new sleeping bags and new tents to stockpile and distribute through the colder months.

Jon Glackin, Streets Kitchen co-ordinator, said: “We are staring down the barrel of possibly the worst winter we have ever seen for those experiencing homelessness. Day centres, where people could warm up in the day, are still shut. Shelters are not opening.

We are calling for empty buildings to be opened, but at this point we are moving into survival mode and gathering what we can to provide some small comfort to our friends on the street.”

The taskforce said that not only are they seeing more people forced to sleep on the streets since the eviction ban lifted, but that shelters – the only resort for many if more funding isn’t given to find self-contained accommodation for them – have received no guidance for handling Covid-19 through winter. People will be “left out in the cold” as thousands find themselves homeless for the first time, the organisations said.

A Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “Councils have been given over £4.8 billion of emergency funding to deal with the immediate pressures of the pandemic – including support for rough sleepers – and over £91m in funding for interim accommodation and support services for those at risk of rough sleeping.

“Working with councils, charities and other partners we will protect vulnerable rough sleepers this winter and fund longer term accommodation and tailored support to end rough sleeping for good.”