Spotlight: The Covid-19 homelessness response

Our March Spotlight focuses on homelessness through the pandemic. We share legacies and success, look at challenges faced by local authorities and explore actions going forward. These shining examples of the Covid-19 homelessness response serve as inspiration for practitioners across the built environment thinking about post-Covid recovery.

Between March and November 2020, 37,000 homeless people in England were provided emergency accommodation through the government’s Everyone In scheme. The initiative provided emergency funding to local authorities and frontline services to help rough sleepers self-isolate and prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Everyone In proved what can be done to tackle Britain’s homeless crisis when local authorities and not-for-profits are provided with a mandate and the right funding. And when partnership working can flourish without bureaucratic restrictions.

But this welcome change in attitude was short lived. As early as May 2020, concerns over the quiet rollback of the scheme grew as funding dried up. Local authorities and homelessness organisations are now apprehensive about a potential spike in homelessness when temporary measures end.

Forthcoming challenges

Local authorities are now facing a “cliff edge” explained Danny Tompkins, Navigator with the London Navigator Team at homelessness charity St Mungo’s and an FoL Alumnus. There are concerns for when temporary accommodation like youth hostels are back up and running in their original capacity, and the current residents need rehoming.

Depending on policy and funding available, some boroughs have extended temporary accommodation agreements, however many of these are set to come to an end by 31 March 2021.

When the Everyone In policy was adopted, accommodation and support services were offered to all rough sleepers. Now, councils are no longer officially required to accommodate people beyond their statutory duty – although many continue to.

These factors, combined with the forthcoming end of the eviction ban, and a budget that London Council’s Executive Member for Housing & Planning, Cllr Darren Rodwell, described as doing “the bare minimum to address the homelessness crisis,” raise concerns over an impending increase in homelessness and the welfare of this vulnerable group.

The new normal?

Despite the challenges facing voluntary organisations and local authorities in responding to homelessness, much of the great work achieved in the past year offers hope for the future.

The first lockdown saw a “paradigm shift in what was deemed possible,” says Danny, explaining that while the most recent lockdown has felt much more like “business as usual” this shift has changed what is expected within the sector.

Much of this was due to the initial funding boost from central government. With a new bar set for appropriate levels of funding, those working in the homelessness sector have started to consider best value approaches.

“the success of Everyone In demonstrates that, given the mandate and funding, councils, working with their partners, have the means to end the vast majority of rough sleeping.” Local Government Association

Housing First: Long-term investment for sustainable futures

One approach that requires higher upfront costs but has proved effective and sustainable is Housing First – a model that provides people with accommodation as a platform for change without conditions. “People know this is the best solution,” said Danny, explaining that getting people into suitable accommodation quickly is one of the first critical steps to break the cycle of homelessness.

St Mungo’s Housing First locations in London. Source St Mungo’s

Housing First reduces the long-term costs of caring for homeless people. St Mungo’s, one of the largest providers of Housing First services in England, explained that “if an estimated £9,683 is spent annually per Housing First client, some £15,073 is saved on other bills -including homelessness services, the Criminal Justice System, NHS and mental health services as well as substance addiction support.”

A key feature of Housing First is partnership working between service providers and local authorities to maximise the impact. One programme that has excelled at this is the Greater Manchester Homes Partnership.

Manchester – a collaboration success story

In the wake of the Everyone In initiative, the extraordinary joint working between partners across councils, housing associations, health services and the not-for-profit sector has received huge recognition.

Manchester provides a successful example of a holistic and sustainable approach to homelessness that city makers in London could learn from.

The GM Homes Partnership scheme provided long-term housing alongside essential support services to 356 people between 2017 and 2020. The scheme took a trauma-informed approach to supporting tenants – many of whom are classified as extremely vulnerable. The specific needs of individuals moulded how each case was handled. The partnership worked flexibly – adapting allocation policies to support residents who would have previously been refused access to social housing.

Source GM Homes Partnership

The scheme’s response to Covid-19 was quick and innovative.

Service delivery partners creatively adapted to maintain and coordinate support, ensuring participants had all they needed for an unspecified period of reduced face-to-face contact. This included access to support services, phones and credit and a comfortable home.

Services have become more person-centred – many staff took time to speak to participants by phone, enabling a deeper understanding of people’s lives so they could find better ways to support them.

Although the scheme has now ended after three successful years – with 79% of participants still accommodated – the legacy of its work serves as a great example of the strength of collaboration to break the cycle of homelessness. Working across teams to put people first led to better, more sustained outcomes. Ultimately, this freed up capacity of those working to address homelessness and dramatically reduced the reliance of participants on services.

GM Homes Partnership: How it works. Source GM Homes Partnership

Lessons learnt: key approaches going forward

In building an equitable recovery, homelessness should be a key item on the agenda. The last year has shown us what is possible.

  • Collaboration is key: partnerships forged during the initial lockdown must be cultivated and maintained to provide holistic support to vulnerable people. Collaboration in the homeless sector serves as a fantastic example for others engaging with vulnerable community members in their recovery plans.
  • Prioritise long-term investment in homelessness: investing for the future is not a new idea in thinking about recovery, but homelessness must be part of this. Approaches like Housing First and increasing social and privately rented homes for such schemes are vital to breaking the cycle and offer value for money.
  • Continue to support people with no access to public funds: the pandemic shone a light on the large number of these individuals and how they can be included in action against homelessness.
  • Focus on people: Programmes are most effective when they focus on what people need and how can we help, rather than ‘this is what we have, who needs it most?’. This approach should be used for all types of community support.
  • Lead by example and through success: we must celebrate all that’s been achieved this past year. Gather the data, thank those involved and use this as a motivator to do things differently and share successes far and wide!

In our 2021 programme Building recovery: Closing the gap we will be looking at how we create more equitable cities. We’re keen to connect with organisations involved in working in urban post-Covid recovery and equalities. If you have experience to share or are interested in partnering with FoL on this project, please contact Hannah Gibbs. Check out our other Spotlights here.