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Has Covid-19 really ended homelessness?

By Margery Infield 10 August 2020 3 minute read

The government’s recent ‘Everyone In’ scheme, in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, is probably the single most significant homelessness policy shift in the UK for a number of years. Before Covid-19 hit, the homelessness sector had faced a decade with little to celebrate: from 2010-2019 rough sleeping more than doubled and as recently as March this year there were signs that rates of rough sleeping were continuing to worsen.

Announced on 27 March, the government called on local authorities to do everything they could to provide shelter to everyone sleeping rough during the UK lockdown. One of the biggest goals of the homelessness sector—one which seemed many years away at the beginning of 2020—was achieved almost overnight.

This scheme has rightly received considerable media coverage. Over 5,400 people, who had been sleeping unsheltered pre-lockdown, were provided with accommodation in a matter of days. News articles talked about how Covid-19 had nearly ended homelessness in the UK, but to what extent is this true and what can funders do to ensure that this overnight progress on homelessness is not shown the door in coming months?

Hidden homelessness

Covid-19, and the policy response to it, undoubtedly caused a paradigm shift in the homelessness system. It has shown that where the political will exists, it is possible to eliminate rough sleeping. But we should be cautious about any claims that Covid-19 has solved the issue of homelessness.

The majority of people who are homeless in the UK do not sleep rough. Last year, around 120,000 households became homeless in England, including nearly 50,000 children. The vast majority of these people can be described as ‘hidden homeless’, living in temporary accommodation (such as council-provided B&Bs) or ad hoc shelter (such as sofa-surfing).

The best estimates suggest that people sleeping rough make up less than 5% of all people who are homeless. Therefore, merely providing shelter to those sleeping rough will have a limited impact on the wider issue of homelessness.

What’s more, people sheltered through the ‘Everyone In’ scheme are still homeless. Getting people off the streets and into shelter does not mean that they are no longer homeless—they still need support to find a permanent home. The bottlenecks which existed within the housing system before the pandemic, such as when moving people on from temporary accommodation into permanent accommodation, still remain due to a lack of affordable housing.

Ongoing and new challenges

The disruption that this pandemic has caused has also exacerbated some of the challenges faced by people who are homeless. Many people sleeping rough who were accommodated under the ‘Everyone In’ scheme face complex challenges such as mental health issues or substance misuse issues, and many have previous experience of trauma. These challenges are likely to have been made worse by the hugely unsettling experience of lockdown: the charity Groundswell undertook monitoring with several hundred people experiencing homelessness and it showed that Covid-19 had had a detrimental impact on the mental health of people who are homeless.

Providing a roof over someone’s head does not help them to address these underlying challenges, which are often factors which keep people locked in a cycle of street homelessness.

Furthermore, the root causes of homelessness will be exacerbated by the oncoming recession, meaning that more people may fall into this cycle. Our research from 2018 showed that poverty is the largest risk factor for homelessness. An impending recession and rising unemployment will result in more people losing their permanent homes, and we are already beginning to see the impact of Covid-19 on poverty levels—recent research from PSE:UK suggests that 50% of UK households believe they will struggle to meet their financial commitments over the next three months.

What can funders do?

We must not forget about the tens of thousands of people already without a permanent home, including those people helped by the ‘Everyone In’ scheme. Frontline organisations are already doing valuable work to provide bridging support to those leaving ‘Everyone In’ accommodation. But more intensive support may be needed to ensure that all those leaving ‘Everyone In’ accommodation are able to secure and maintain a home. Funders should consider opportunities for social investment in affordable housing and support to scale effective homelessness interventions, both of which are important tools.

It is also crucial to prevent people becoming newly homeless as a result of Covid-19. Many of the recommendations of our previous research remain relevant: as the government opens its cheque book to support the economy throughout the pandemic, funders should consider campaigning on changes to housing and welfare policy which will enable people to keep their jobs and homes. They should also consider funding organisations which help people who are homeless and organisations which can support those at risk of homelessness to weather periods of financial instability, such as poverty charities.

The bottom line is that funders should not forget about homelessness charities. Covid-19 and the ‘Everyone In’ scheme have shaken up the system, but they have not solved the core issues and the oncoming economic shocks that will threaten more people with homelessness—if anything, many of the factors leading to and trapping people in homelessness have been worsened by this pandemic.

Whilst the policy response to Covid-19 may have temporarily reduced the most visible and devastating form of homelessness, there is little reason to withdraw from funding and to believe that homelessness has been alleviated by the government’s response to this crisis.

Whilst probably the single most significant homelessness policy shift in the UK for a number of years, the government's 'Everyone In' scheme temporarily addressed rough sleeping and has not solved the core issues of homelessness Click To Tweet