Amid the tragedy, economic devastation and turbulence created by the coronavirus pandemic, there have been silver linings – and none more so than the extraordinary efforts that have seen rough sleepers removed from the streets within a matter of days.
Dame Louise Casey, already a homelessness adviser to Number 10, was appointed to a special taskforce to get people off the streets and into isolation. Councils were handed just £3.2m targeted funding, while homelessness figures have been steadily rising for over a decade.
Speaking to The MJ, Dame Louise looks back to the start of lockdown, when she went shopping, In an upmarket supermarket, situated in an affluent part of London, the foodbank collection bins were empty as people stockpiled for their own lockdown. Those most in need had been forgotten.
The homelessness adviser had just returned from Sydney, Australia, where she was repeated asked what would happen to rough sleepers in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.
‘We knew from the outset that this virus will disproportionately affect those who are poor,’ she says. Hunger, homelessness, illness – all exacerbated by the inability to work, or working in frontline jobs.
‘On that Wednesday, I was at a round table event at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, chaired by Robert Jenrick. I said, you have to find a way to get everyone in.’
It was one of many conversations happening, but Dame Louise says she was ‘worried by the London-centric nature’ of the discussions. ‘I felt this had to be gripped and it would fall to poor old local government, who essentially have to grip everything.’
Getting rough sleepers off the streets is hard enough, but getting them off the streets and out of shelters – where there are dormitories of 20 or more people on the floors or on cot beds – is daunting task. One which had to be done in a fortnight.
She wrote to local authorities and told them to get everyone off the streets. The results were ‘extraordinary’ – local authorities are exceptional in a crisis and she is effusive about the way they have kept the country going throughout the pandemic. ‘If ever there was a moment to show the public who keeps the show on the road, this is it,’ she says.
Nearly 15,000 homeless people were pulled off the streets and out of shelters, and put into emergency accommodation, since the start of the crisis. Councils jumped into action to achieve the impossible.
‘Birmingham is not always up there as the most highly regarded council in the country,’ Dame Louise says. ‘But they worked incredibly well and they were down to six rough sleepers left on the streets.
‘When I looked at the numbers at Easter, I though “it took me three years and a lot of money with the support of the Blair Government to achieve that”.’
She is under no illusions about what a huge task this has been – while local authorities have also grappled with all the other issues surrounding the COVID-19 crisis.
But that was just the start. Dame Louise has a new ambition – to end rough sleeping for good.
The challenge now is to take the homeless people who have been hastily stashed into hotels and hostels, and find a long-term solution to their housing needs – as well as addressing a whole host of related issues from substance abuse to mental health problems.
Local government will also need to answer some difficult questions on who to prioritise – choosing between the street homeless in emergency accommodation, to women and children fleeing domestic abuse and ‘entire families in rooms the size of a parking space’.
‘All those 15,000 [rough sleepers who were taken off the streets] will need housing,’ she says. ‘Local authorities will need to use their own powers to get that done.’
Last week, housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced a package of funding to start the process of rehousing the homeless. Funding of £381m announced in the budget has been brought forward, alongside an additional £53m to create 6,000 new homes – 3,300 of them in the next 12 months.
But with 15,000 people coming off the streets, it is still nowhere near enough. Homes England is working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to fast track housing units, while Dame Louise has brought together charities, faith groups and public and private sector partners to help.
‘I don’t think the voluntary sector or the statutory sector can do this alone,’ the homelessness adviser says. ‘I wholeheartedly support localism but they [local authorities] are going to need help.’
Dame Louise has her heart set on upping the budgets coming down from central Government too. She suggests it is easier to pull forward pots of cash that have already been allocated, to get them into the system quickly, rather that asking for completely new funding.
As a result, she is targeting some ring-fenced cash from the Department of Health and Social Care to tackle drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health problems, but after a decade of austerity, there is ‘barely any treatment beds’. Those who have been on the streets for several years are in need of support.
‘To do it on one year funding is not going to be enough, and we don’t want to miss this opportunity.’
Dame Louise is more than aware of the difficulties facing councils. ‘After a decade of austerity, you add in COVID-19… local authorities are trying to keep the show on the road and they have made it clear they can’t.
‘They are concerned – but they will remain concerned even after [Mr Jenrick’s funding announcement] that they won’t have the resources to do this.
‘Our colleagues in local government are at the forefront of this. Dealing with domestic violence from fraying tempers through to abuse that is hidden…. I would encourage any politician to acknowledge just how hard this is.’
Local Government minister Luke Hall has written to councils to ask them outline how they plan to move rough sleepers from hotels on to appropriate accommodation. While he acknowledges local authorities have asked about extra funding, he has reiterated the cash that has already been allocated with no hint of any more to come.
He also reminds councils that the rules have not changed when it comes to people with no recourse to public funds.
Dame Louise stresses that there is no need for anyone in modern Britain to be sleeping rough on the streets, and no need for any child to be homeless.
Speaking at the Number 10 press briefing on Sunday, she said: ‘Now that so many people are inside, I hope that we can keep it that way. What has been done here is a small but incredible silver lining in the dark cloud that is COVID-19.’