Earlier this year, governments across the UK took swift action to protect thousands of rough sleepers from Covid-19. They worked with local authorities and charities to find temporary accommodation, including in hotels, B&Bs, and student dormitories.
But homelessness hasn’t gone away. Some people remained on the street; others weren’t able to sustain their new accommodation or became homeless during the pandemic. Many more are worried about losing their homes as the economic consequences set in.
The voluntary and community sector (VCS) continued to support people experiencing homelessness during this time. Here you can find out what groups funded through National Lottery grants, the Coronavirus Community Support Fund (CCSF), and Covid-19 Charities Fund have been doing, and what they’ve learned.
How have our grantholders responded?
Working with local authorities to find shelter and safety for everyone
Grantholders worked alongside authorities in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to find rooms for people who were sleeping on the streets. They adapted existing accommodation to make it suitable for self-isolation and found new locations when they weren’t able to modify existing buildings.
- Being part of the multi-agency effort to find emergency accommodation. Charities used their connections and expertise to support public agencies tasked with protecting the homeless. As part of the city's early response, Stopgap Sheffield helped 42 people to find short-term accommodation for a total of 108 nights.
- Moving residents, so everyone can be safe. Some shelters, nightstops and hostels aren’t suitable for social distancing because of their dormitory-style sleeping areas. That’s why charities like Glass Door in London worked with local authorities to find self-contained rooms for people.
- Securing self-isolation rooms for people who have symptoms or have been diagnosed with Covid-19. St Anne’s Hostel in Birmingham provides safe temporary housing and support to 59 single men. To minimise the risk of infection spreading, they kept one bedroom with its own bathroom free within their 37-bed hostel. It’s only used if a resident has symptoms of Covid-19.
- Extending opening hours to reduce the number of social contacts. Hope4Havering opened its night shelter from 12 to 6 p.m. so clients had somewhere to stay during the day, reducing their need to mix with people outside. Glasgow night shelter for destitute asylum seekers shifted from being an overnight accommodation provider, to a 24-hour service, offering three meals a day instead of one. To make this possible, many staff worked twice as many shifts as usual.
- Creating new emergency accommodation for rough sleepers. The Hirsche Foundation is converting a double-decker bus into emergency accommodation for rough sleepers in West Yorkshire. People who aren’t eligible for council accommodation will be able to get food, hygiene products and space to self-isolate on the “bus shelter.” It will have 12 beds, a shower, kitchen, and a learning area, and will be housed on land provided by Kirklees council.
Meeting fundamental needs
Living in hotels and B&Bs meant many people didn’t have access to kitchens. And before the pandemic, a lot of food provision was through large gatherings in soup kitchens and drop-in centres. With the lockdown rules, many had to temporarily close.
Charities filled these gaps in a range of ways, not just delivering food but also prescriptions, activities to help pass the time, and ‘new’ essentials like hand sanitiser and masks. These deliveries are more than just subsistence support; they’re a way to stay in contact and provide much-needed social interaction.
- Supplying Covid-19 support packs. Hearts and Helpers, a charity supporting rough sleepers in Enfield, supplies crisis backpacks which include essential items from hand sanitisers and face masks to latex gloves and Covid-19 symptom checkers.
- Continuing to meet basic needs. Grit Street Aid runs a mobile support unit in Manchester and supply sleeping bags, tents, toiletries, food, and clothes, as well as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for staff and volunteers. In South Wales, Homeless Hope continued to offer basic foot care and education to help people living on the streets avoid developing serious leg conditions. National Lottery funding helped them buy waterproof footwear and clothing, medical supplies, and clinical screens.
- Making sure people in temporary accommodation can eat well. The Olive Branch, a day centre in Newport, Wales, delivered 50 packed meals, four days a week, to people in B&Bs or who chose to remain living in tents. Every month Food for Scotland, a food distribution project in South Lanarkshire, prepared and distributed around 1,200 food packages and hot meals to homeless shelters in Glasgow.
- Using food deliveries to check in on people and build connections. Homeless charity Caring in Bristol used the infrastructure from their Christmas project to rapidly set up a city-wide food delivery service to people in hotels and hostels. They brought together a team of 148 volunteers and 14 restaurants to prepare and deliver almost 80,000 meals between March and June. Volunteers dedicated over 9,000 hours to collecting ingredients, prepping meals, distributing food, and cleaning. If these volunteers had been paid a Living Wage for their work it would have cost an estimated £91,200. 24 local chefs prepared meals using £35,680 worth of food that was donated from the community. It’s estimated to have helped save nearly 15 tonnes of food and 5.9 tonnes of Co2 by diverting food waste from landfill. They also carried out over 12,000 Covid-19 symptom checks, identifying two suspected cases. The service helped people feel less isolated; one recipient explained, “I look forward to each delivery. It's given me faith.”
- Improving access to essentials. In the height of the pandemic, Humankind found that homeless people were afraid they’d be challenged that their journey wasn’t essential, especially if they’d previously had negative experiences with the police.They produced essential journey cards, so people could collect prescriptions and supplies without fear of being challenged or fined.
Addressing the causes and consequences of homelessness
National action to address rough sleeping presented a time-critical opportunity for many to find a path out of homelessness. Charities that had to temporarily close their drop-in centres quickly moved many of their services into the lobbies of hotels, B&Bs and hostels. They kept in touch over WhatsApp and helped people settle into new homes.
- Supporting people on-site with health, wellbeing, benefit, and housing queries. In some cases, this has enabled charities and councils to connect with people who previously hadn’t been in a place to accept support.
- Staying in touch by phone. Sifa Fireside, in Birmingham, supplied phones so people could get support and help to register and log on to different platforms.
- Help in making a house a home. SHAX Dumfries provide basic household essentials like crockery, bedding, and kitchen equipment for people who’ve lost, or had to flee, their home. They gave out backpacks with toys and a lunchbox, helping nine individuals and two families in crisis in the first week of July alone.
- Bridging the gap from temporary to permanent housing. Aspire Oxfordshire is renovating and equipping three empty residential properties with a total of 35 rooms, which they’ve acquired for two years from an Oxford college. They’ll also supply house starter sets and provide support from a housing and employment development worker.
We've made more progress in the last eight weeks than we've made in the previous eight years. John Glenton, Riverside group, Manchester
Supporting staff on the ‘new front line’
When people were housed in hotels and student accommodation, suddenly staff like receptionists, security guards, cleaners, and hotel managers were working with residents with very different needs. Grantholders worked quickly to equip these new ‘frontline’ workers with skills and understanding to help them in this new role.
- More supportive, welcoming settings. Homeless Link produced a webinar for hotel staff to increase their understanding of the challenges rough sleepers face, such as recognising alcohol withdrawal symptoms. They also provided practical tips, like encouraging staff to introduce themselves and learn residents' names.
- Training to understand trauma and how it affects people's behaviour. The Greater Manchester Women’s Support Alliance (GMWSA) produced a training programme for hotel security staff to improve their understanding of trauma responsive practice and domestic violence.
- Guidance on cleaning and managing shared spaces. In just three weeks, Fulfilling Lives in Lambeth produced clear, practical instructions for staff and clients on cleaning during Covid-19. This includes guidance on when to wear PPE, how to manage a daily cleaning schedule, and how to deal with personal waste and laundry.
One hotel owner explained that his understanding of homelessness had now changed completely. “I realise now that these individuals are there, often through no fault of their own […] They’ve just had a bad roll of the dice."
Learning: a shared responsibility and a unique opportunity
Now we know it’s possible to achieve significant progress in a short time, there are new challenges to face. The first is to use this window of opportunity to change the lives of many people for good. The second is to look back at how people were supported during the pandemic and find ways to build on and sustain these approaches.
Not just a bed for the night
Not all of the temporary accommodation solutions worked well. Sometimes vulnerable women were housed in the same building as men, putting them at increased risk of exploitation. Some people were located away from their support networks and services.
But many others were housed in accommodation which offered more comfort and security than basic emergency shelters, where residents often sleep in a shared space with little privacy. People were able to eat and sleep better than for some time. This has helped to make them feel valued again, with an impact on their self-esteem. The feeling of safety, and access to support, has provided a fresh start for many, whereas unsecure, unwelcoming emergency accommodation can have the opposite effect: it can feel like life on the streets, which is why some people return to what they know.
This experience shows the importance of secure housing as a stable platform from which other issues can be addressed. We’ve supported Housing First pilots in Manchester, Islington and Camden, and Stoke-on-Trent which have taken this approach. Their experiences reinforce the importance of:
- Prioritising access to housing, chosen on the basis of suitability (stability, affordability, location) rather than the type of housing;
- Flexible support, for as long as it is needed, from staff who have the time and skills to help people in a proactive way (including low caseloads of 5-7 people); and
- People being in charge of shaping the support they receive.
A chance to learn and push the boundaries
Frontline staff and organisations across the country need opportunities to connect; to share experiences and expertise. Lockdown meant more of these connections began to happen online, reducing geographical barriers and inequalities in access to expert support. The Making Every Adult Matter partnership ran a series of “Ask the Network” webinars enabling frontline workers and smaller organisations to ask experts questions on topics like prison resettlement and substance use.
Organisations have also pooled and shared resources for wider use. Homeless Link hosted Covid-19 webinars including guidance for working with people who were unwilling or unable to self-isolate. Inspiring Change used its multi-agency GM-Think database, which enabled homelessness services across Greater Manchester to share information quickly and securely, and record people's vulnerability to Covid-19, alongside their other support needs.
We’ve seen organisations flexing their working practices, prioritising the commitment to find somewhere safe for everyone; leading to faster assessments, referrals and decisions, and more freedom for staff to make their own judgements. For the first time, one borough council paid for a taxi for a client with anxiety to travel out-of-area for accommodation. Previously they’d have had to make this journey on their own, and the costs involved could have prevented them from taking up the offer.
Working differently, keeping everyone connected
One-to-one support is at the heart of our grantholders’ work with people experiencing homelessness. Traditionally they’ve done it by building relationships through informal conversations that help people to open up. This has been trickier to do during lockdown, but it’s not been impossible.
Grantholders have introduced “talking while walking” catch-ups, meaning that support workers and clients have gone on separate walks while talking on the phone. It’s allowed clients to open up and get fresh air and exercise.
They’ve held socially distanced drop-ins at hotels and other emergency shelters and organised doorstep meetings during food drop-offs. These are particularly important for people who don’t have a phone, or who may be reluctant to ask for help.
Remote provision via phone and internet has enabled many services to continue. For some clients, these have been easier to keep up with, compared to multiple face-to-face appointments. And sometimes the change to more regular phone calls and visits has made people feel more looked after, encouraging them to engage with support.
But charities need up-to-date technology to make remote provision work. National Lottery funding has enabled Glasgow East Women’s Aid to upgrade their existing IT equipment – server, laptops and pager phone - so they could provide emotional and therapeutic support remotely, as well as help with food, housing and fuel poverty.
With services going online, access to Wi-Fi became even more important. Because many day services had closed, Stonepillow in Chichester installed Wi-Fi for 64 clients in their accommodation, so they could access benefits, support groups like Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous, and stay connected to friends and family.
Next steps: prevention at the heart of recovery
In a crisis situation, it can be hard to prioritise preventative approaches, but these help people to avoid becoming homeless in the first place. Through early intervention, grantholders help keep families together, support people to sustain their tenancies, and find new housing for people who are fleeing unsafe homes.
Don’t wait to act
There are a number of groups of people where early intervention can have a big impact.
- Working with families to prevent youth homelessness. Grantholders are reporting a rise in young people presenting as homeless and family breakdown is often the cause. Llamau’s award-winning family mediation service in Wales supports over 500 young people and their families each year. Their work has led to an annual success rate of 71% of young people returning home.
- Making sure ex-offenders have somewhere to go. Fulfilling Lives Newcastle and Gateshead found almost half of the 50 clients they supported were released to no fixed abode. Using supported accommodation instead means that people are connected to services and able to get more support, with the result that they are the least likely to re-offend. Preventive interventions for prisoners should address housing as a fundamental, alongside help to access mental and physical healthcare, training, and jobs.
- Keeping in contact with survivors of domestic abuse. Violence against women and girls has risen in lockdown, putting them at risk of ending up on the street. Survivors may be going under the radar, so it’s important to know what to look for, and how to make and maintain contact. Fulfilling Lives Islington and Camden have produced information on supporting people in the context of Covid-19, without raising perpetrators’ suspicions. We also know that victims and their children can be better supported in their own communities, especially when they have strong social networks. Solutions that enable them to stay in their home (and removing the perpetrator to alternative housing) should be considered.
Work with tenants and landlords to reduce the impact of financial hardship
Proactive work with tenants and landlords can help reduce the risk of homelessness.
- Being there from the start. Porchlight in Kent have set up a rapid response team to prevent tenants’ financial problems from escalating into issues that are much harder to resolve. In the past, 98% of people they’ve helped kept their home.
- Raise awareness and understanding amongst landlords to reduce discrimination. Tai Pawb, which promotes equality and social justice in housing in Wales, supports both landlords and tenants in the private rented sector to deal with issues stemming from tenants’ mental health issues. 3,000 landlords have taken an e-learning module about equality and diversity, against a target of 120, showing there’s an appetite to improve practice. It's important that support is provided flexibly - at times and ways which take into consideration other roles and responsibilities of private landlords.
- Proactive outreach on money matters. People often let financial issues build up over time, before asking for help. Many funded organisations, like Manage Money Wales, have proactively contacted former clients to see how they’re doing, so they can step in to offer support at the earliest opportunity. Vineyard Compassion in Northern Ireland integrates their debt centre with a food bank, social supermarket and counselling, to provide a hub for those at a point of crisis.
Increase understanding of the trauma that lies behind homelessness
The stigma around homelessness has continued in the context of Covid-19. Grantholders have continued work to tackle this issue in different ways.
- Sharing real-life stories. SJ, a client of Golden Key in Bristol, compiled an online diary blog outlining his feelings and challenges based on how the pandemic is affecting him, hoping that it helps others understand homelessness and how it feels.
- Sharing people’s concerns with decision-makers. Northern Ireland Youth Forum surveyed the young people they support, including those experiencing homelessness. They shared these experiences with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, to inform future policy-making.
- Promoting a trauma-informed approach in future solutions. The pandemic itself is a traumatic event, leading to some people re-living traumas from their past. Kingston Church Action on Homelessness made more counselling sessions available for beneficiaries and staff. And our grantholders in Newcastle and Gateshead have shared their expertise on trauma-informed services through blogs and a webinar.
We're making sense of what we're seeing and hearing from our grantholders at pace, so there'll be things we've missed, haven't noticed yet or, perhaps, misinterpreted.
We welcome comments or challenge, so that we can continuously improve and develop, and make this work practical and useful.
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This page was last updated: 15 September 2020.