Safeguarding Bristol’s rough sleepers during the pandemic

By Marvin Rees | 01 April 2020

The national housing crisis, homelessness and rough sleeping are well known challenges across the UK. As Mayor of Bristol I have prioritised building homes, but a decade of austerity and disinvestment in places has left many city leaders struggling for the resources to build the homes and provide the services everyone needs, especially the most vulnerable forced to sleep on the streets.

The coronavirus (COVID19) pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the issue, as city and local governments work under extreme circumstances to provide for vulnerable citizens. Since the crisis began, Bristol has been no exception. We, our partners and other organisations across the city have worked swiftly to coordinate efforts on the ground to ensure the housing, food and support needs of the most vulnerable are met. We are also in daily contact with Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) colleagues to share information, progress and best practice.

We quickly realised that in order to safeguard the city’s rough sleepers, we needed more accommodation for them to self-isolate and that existing provision wasn’t enough. We made an urgent call to hoteliers, Airbnb owners and student housing providers to come forward to offer accommodation and received an incredibly positive response, including offers for hundreds of en-suite and self-contained rooms and flats to house people who are rough sleeping for as long as is needed.

Our quick work to house people who are homeless during the crisis was matched by central Government at the end of last week, who called on local authorities to house all people who are rough sleeping and living in night shelters by the weekend. At that time, our team on the ground had already begun placing people in suitable accommodation in order for them to self-isolate. As things stand, we have successfully placed the majority of rough sleepers in hotels and all shelter occupants are in alternative accommodation, while negotiations continue with hotel chains for a further supply of rooms.

From the start, we were very aware that simply putting someone into accommodation isn’t enough; people need to be supported and fed. Many people have complex needs and we are working extremely hard to make sure that these are not forgotten in the midst of such an unprecedented event. All occupants of these emergency rooms are being provided with meals and support.

Alongside St Mungo’s, we are supporting local charity Caring in Bristol to start a food delivery service to those homeless who are self-isolating, working with community volunteers and chefs to provide a home-cooked meal. Other restaurants are also getting on board, giving the service the capacity to feed up to 600 people a day.

None of this amazing effort would have been possible without the support, ingenuity and passion of our partner services and local groups across Bristol, as well as the dedication of council staff. Bristol has come together in its response –voluntary agencies have focussed on ensuring that people placed in accommodation and those still on the streets get food, Bristol City Football Club has let Feed The Homeless use their facilities to prepare and pack food and essentials like toiletries in its Ashton Gate stadium, and the Bristol YMCA has collaborated with us and St Mungo’s to open its ‘Bristol Wing’ hostel to people who are homeless during the crisis. Our appeal for volunteers through our Can Do Bristol platform has seen over 3,000 people sign up to help, an extraordinary response from citizens of all stripes across our city.

This reflects our understanding of how the city already worked. What citizens experience as Bristol is not just the services they receive from the council, but all the other public sector organisations, businesses and third sector too. Pulling together these organisations to harness the collective power is an approach we’ve called One City, and means deliberately planning together about what type of place we wanted Bristol to be in the future. I made homelessness the first focus of the City Office when it was created, and our vision in the Bristol One City plan is to deliver city-wide interventions that tackle homelessness.

I’d like to say a personal thank you to the hotels and their staff where we have placed people – this wouldn’t have been possible without their support and dedication. I hope that when the dust settles we all can look back on the work we did to look after the most vulnerable people in Bristol as a source of pride for the city.

Marvin Rees is Mayor of Bristol

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