Brooks Newmark: With the rise in the virus and winter soon upon us, now is the time to help rough sleepers

6 Nov

Brooks Newmark is a former Minister for Civil Society and MP for Braintree, and is a member of the Government’s Rough Sleepers Advisory.  He also chairs the Centre for Social Justice’s Working Group on Homelessness, which has produced a report, Housing First.

At the beginning of the Covid pandemic back in March, Robert Jenrick and his team at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government moved quickly to find temporary housing for almost 30,000 rough sleepers and sofa surfers (almost double the initial estimated figure of 15,000) within the space of a few weeks.

This was part of the Government’s ‘Everyone In’ strategy. Its swift action at that time supported some of the most vulnerable in our society, prevented the further spread of the disease and no doubt saved lives.

But, equally importantly, its action showed that, with the right political will, the Government has the ability to tackle and eradicate the blight of rough sleeping once and for all.

The latest available statistics released in the past few days look positive. Between 1st April and 30th June the number of households owed a homelessness duty fell by 11 per cent to 63,750 year-on-year. Further, with Government action to suspend convictions, the number of people living in rented accommodation who were ‘at risk’, or became homeless due to a Section 21 Notice to evict them from their property, fell by 69 per cent year-on-year.

What these statistics show is that with the political will and the right strategy – the ‘Everyone In’ scheme and the ban on evictions – resolving the seemingly endemic issue of rough sleeping is possible.

However, as the Government began to unwind its lockdown and emergency accommodation programme over the summer, the latest evidence from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) has shown that rough sleeping remains a pernicious issue.

In London, which accounts for almost a third of rough sleepers in England, CHAIN recorded, between July and September, 3,444 individuals sleeping rough in the capital, of whom 1,901 were new to the streets. Further, according to Francesca Albanese, the Head of Research at Crisis “there are also early signs that people who have been rough sleeping for a number of years are not having their needs met. After a drop between April and June, this has now reversed with a 27 per cent increase in the last three months.”

With winter soon upon us and a rise in Covid cases, rough sleepers are some of the most vulnerable and at risk in the country today. If there is a decision for the new Homelessness Minister, Kelly Tollhurst, to make, it is to press Jenrick and the Chancellor to find the necessary funding to bring back the ‘Everyone In’ scheme. This will once again provide secure if not permanent accommodation to rough sleepers, where they can self-isolate and have somewhere warm to sleep over the forthcoming winter months.

But longer-term solutions are needed.

The Government’s Next Steps Accommodation Programme has made  £266 million available to local authorities to ensure in part as few individuals as possible end up back on the streets, with £91.5 million earmarked for 274 local councils to provide interim accommodation for those most at risk of rough sleeping.

More importantly, the Next Steps Accommodation Programme includes funding of £150 million, earmarked to deliver 3,300 homes for rough sleepers by the end of March 2021 (an ambitious target).

A total of 276 schemes have been approved across England (homelessness is a devolved issue), including 38 in London alone to provide 904 new homes for rough sleepers.

Outside the capital, 238 councils have received approval for a further 2,430 homes for rough sleepers. In all, the Government is seeking to provide 6,000 homes for rough sleepers by the end of this Parliament as part of the Rough Sleeping Accommodation Programme.

Further, the Government needs to build on its successful piloting of the Housing First Programme in Liverpool, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. Housing First provides wrap around support for some of the most vulnerable long-term rough sleepers, many of whom have complex needs including mental health and addiction issues. Critically, Housing First does not place conditions upon participants.

To date, the evidence is that Housing First has a low recidivism rate amongst those that participate in the scheme, with few rough sleepers ending up back on the streets. Moreover, the evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the Centre for Social Justice Report ‘Housing First Housing led Solutions for Rough Sleeping and Homelessness’ indicated that there was a saving to the Government of £2.40 for every £1.00 spent.

Currently, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ending Homelessness, co-chaired by Bob Blackman and Neil Coyle, are doing an independent review of Housing First. Their findings should be out by the end of the year.

More broadly, the voluntary sector has proposed its own five-point action plan, which includes much of the above, including:

1) The reintroduction of the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, to enable rough sleepers to self-isolate and to have access to the care and support they need.

2) Ensuring the homeless are one of the priority groups to receive the coronavirus vaccine. A recent study found the frailty of homeless residents in one hostel to be comparable to that of an 89 year old.

3) Enabling rapid access to both secure private and social rent tenancies, with the Government issuing new allocations guidance setting out its expectations of social housing providers to prioritise people facing homelessness, and for the Government to provide funding to local authorities to support help to rent schemes, so people experiencing homelessness can get the support they need to find long term accommodation in the private rented sector.

4) Ensure that Housing First is available for those most in need, which Crisis and Homeless Link estimate to be 16,500 people, and to have a national roll out of Housing First across England beginning in 2021; and

5) a temporary suspension of both the no recourse to public funds conditions for 12 months, and a suspension of the habitual residence test.

The pandemic has forced the Government to raise its game. If the Prime Minister is seeking to ‘level up’ the country, then there is no better place to start than right at the bottom with some of the most vulnerable members of our society – rough sleepers.