Covid-19 has highlighted to everyone the importance of having your own front door, for social distancing and shielding. It was before and it will be after the pandemic, for people experiencing homelessness, a safe space, your own place to heal and rebuild your life.
There has already been much written about ‘what next’ for people experiencing homelessness, especially people who were rough sleeping and are now temporarily housed. It was good to read the news over the weekend that Dame Louise Casey is to lead a taskforce on the next phase of the support for people who rough sleep during the pandemic. This level of national commitment and leadership reflects a recognition that this is a national problem which will take political will and resources, at all levels of government.
The huge effort by local authorities and their voluntary sector partners, such as ourselves, to bring people who were rough sleeping inside has largely worked. We’ve rapidly brought on new self-contained accommodation and are also supporting people in hotels in some of our local areas. Our teams have worked incredibly hard to shift how they deliver services, ensuring that people still get the support they need, while keeping everybody safe.
However, Covid-19 has not meant we have suddenly found the solution to end rough sleeping. So many people are staying in hotels, which will want their usual business back once lockdown is ended. And hotels are not places to live, they are places to stay temporarily, as are hostels, most supported accommodation services and night shelters.
We have to ask ourselves some hard questions:
- Why would people come inside because of Covid-19?
- Is it because the virus is scarier than the usual health problems that come with living on the streets?
- Or is it because the offer is different – not conditional and in response to something that affects the whole of society, rather than treating rough sleeping as a discreet problem for the individual?
- Or is it because there was no offer before – if people have no local connection or have no recourse to public funds?
- How do we capitalise on the progress we have made and not slip back to the status quo where housing is not a human right?
These are the questions we are asking ourselves and talking to the people we work with about right now.
Many issues that affect the people we work with more severely than others have been brought in to sharp relief recently, including food poverty and digital exclusion. And where you live has been a huge factor in how you are able to keep yourself safe and cope with the pandemic and its restrictions.
The shared bathrooms, kitchens and communal areas, and in some cases shared rooms, in hostels for people experiencing homelessness have made it incredibly difficult for people to social distance and self-isolate. Part of the reason that, so far, people in Changing Lives services have not been hit so hard by infection is because for the last three years we have been shifting our housing model to a more dispersed community based model. It’s not just in a pandemic that people need their own space.
Supported accommodation services are clearly much better than sleeping on the streets, but people can be stuck in the system for years, sometimes in big hostels where it’s hard to make progress because of the environment and where staff have limited amounts of time to spend on the things that make a difference long term. We recognised this several years ago and set about changing how we work. We started focussing on a dispersed offer: self-contained homes in communities with intensive housing management support and access to a person-led, strengths based Personal Transitions Service. This means that people can move more quickly through hostels and into their own space.
The importance of your own front door is so clear now, for social distancing and shielding. It was before and it will be after the pandemic, for people experiencing homelessness, a safe space, your own place to heal and rebuild your life.
It’s no accident that we have been able to respond rapidly to the pandemic and bring on more self-contained accommodation quickly in response to need; we’ve been on the road to this way of working for several years. We are fortunate in many places we work that the housing market and our partnerships with housing associations and local authorities have supported this approach. With the political will, leadership both nationally and locally from government and from the sector, and by tackling some of the huge structural issues that are avoided in talking about homelessness (affordable housing, house building for all groups, the welfare system) this can be done everywhere. It’s sad that a pandemic has been needed to reinforce the need to change the homelessness system, but I hope that this is not forgotten as we move out of lockdown and that we build a new system that focuses on supporting people in communities for the long term.