Housing

The Omicron variant could leave people out on the street this winter, charity warns

Bed spaces in London could be down by ‘around a half’ as charity Glass Door warns those “who aren’t good at jumping through bureaucratic hoops” could miss out.

Omicron variant

Glass Door's communal shelter, pictured in 2019, will be closed this winter and that is hitting London's capacity for emergency places where people experiencing homelessness can stay. Image: Glass Door/James Hopkirk

Beds for people experiencing homeless in London could be down on pre-pandemic levels by “around half”, leaving people missing out as the Omicron variant sweeps the English capital, a charity has warned.

Homelessness charities and shelters have been forced to close communal night shelters this winter amid fears of rising Covid cases.

But with no widespread return of the Everyone In scheme that allowed 37,000 rough sleepers to be protected in hotels at the start of the pandemic, London charity Glass Door has warned people who rely on them for emergency shelter could be left on the streets.

Melissa Kerschen, Glass Door’s head of communications, told The Big Issue: “We have known for a long time that running shelters safely this winter would be a challenge, but the transmissibility of the new Omicron variant and the related changes to self-isolation rules are two new factors that made the decision now unavoidable.

“Sleeping on the streets can be deadly in winter, and with so many shelters unable to open, we need to work together to find safe options for people who have nowhere to call home.”

There have now been a surge in cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant across the UK in the last few days with more than 400 cases recorded in the UK as of December 7.

The new variant, which Boris Johnson said was more transmissible than others, has been the deciding factor in closing communal night shelters.

Staff at Glass Door – the largest provider of open-access shelter in the country – have been agonising over the situation since the end of November. But they made the decision to stick to individual room accommodation earlier this week. Sadiq Khan has asked London boroughs to use single rooms in order to limit Covid-19 infections.

That means space is only available for 56 guests at Glass Door’s accommodation, down from the 170 guests the charity could shelter pre-pandemic. Around 425 people are living on the streets in London, according to the most recent CHAIN statistics for July to September 2021.

That means those who are “not high-enough priority, can’t prove a local connection or their immigration status limits them from accessing government support” could miss out, the charity has warned.

“We know this model gives more stability for those who can access a room in this service, but our concern is scale. We can’t provide as many people a space with this model,” added Kerchen.

“We’re completely full, and we’ve now had to close the waiting list, because we know it will take time for our staff to work with the guests to find move-on options.

“While we are encouraged by what we are hearing from our local councils, we need to ensure that solutions don’t just cater for those who are good at jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

“We are particularly concerned for all those who historically have not been able to access government support around their homelessness.

“This is where independent charities are so important to catch people who fall through the cracks in the system.”

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Generally, emergency spaces are down by around half when compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to Housing Justice.

The homelessness charity has teamed up with the London Mayor’s office to provide grants to Covid-safe winter shelter providers to assist them in finding long-term solutions to those who access the services.

“Faith and community groups have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that people experiencing rough sleeping have safe places to sleep this winter,” said Kathy Mohan, chief executive of Housing Justice. “While there will be significantly less beds than prior to the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of beds from night shelter providers will be in single room accommodation. All the evidence suggests this is the right approach, particularly in light of the emergence of the Omicron variant.

“Night shelters are only part of the options that should be available to people experiencing rough sleeping, and local authorities, commissioned and statutory services must all work together once again to maintain the progress of Everyone in.”

While there has been no national call from the Westminster government for a return to the Everyone In scheme, London Mayor Khan announced this week that he is opening the doors of an east London hotel to provide shelter during sub-zero temperatures this winter.

The hotel, operated by St Mungo’s, will be available when the mayor activates the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) when temperatures are forecasted to drop below 0°C. 

More than £800,000 has been set aside to fund the accommodation, Khan announced, with the hotel offering 66 rooms as overflow accommodation in addition to the 500 beds available across London’s boroughs.

“From City Hall and across London we are doing everything we can with the resources at our disposal to keep rough sleepers safe, especially during freezing conditions,” said Khan.

“This extra SWEP space will ensure that dozens more rough sleepers will receive warm, secure accommodation when temperatures drop, and thanks to the ‘In For Good’ principle we know they will be housed until a plan to end their rough sleeping is in place.”

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