Government asks councils to house all rough sleepers by weekend, says charity

By Jemma Crew, PA Social Affairs Correspondent

The Government has asked local authorities in England to house all rough sleepers and those in hostels and night shelters by the weekend, the charity Crisis said.

An email, sent to homelessness managers and rough sleeping co-ordinators in every local authority on Thursday, is quoted by the charity as saying: “As you know, this is a public health emergency.

“We are all redoubling our efforts to do what we possibly can at this stage to ensure that everybody is inside and safe by this weekend, and we stand with you in this.

“These are unusual times so I’m asking for an unusual effort. Many areas of the country have already been able to ‘safe harbour’ their people which is incredible. What we need to do now though is work out how we can get ‘everyone in’.”

The charity said the email was sent by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is yet to comment.

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said: “The Government’s insistence that everyone sleeping rough should be housed by the weekend is a landmark moment – and the right thing to do.

“Questions remain about how local councils will be supported to do this, and whether additional funding, or assistance securing hotel rooms, will be made available.

“We also need to see a package of support so that, when the outbreak subsides, the outcome is not that people return to the streets.

“The Government has committed to ending rough sleeping by 2025 – this proves it can be done in 2020 if we make it the priority it deserves to be.”

The email, seen by the PA news agency, was written by Government official Dame Louise Casey, who said in conclusion: “It’s important for the welfare of both homeless people and staff or volunteers that all communal night shelters and any street encampments are closed down for the time being.

“These communal settings, as you will be aware, are high-risk for spreading coronavirus.

“We know that this is not a perfect system, and in time we can take stock and work together to consider how best to continue this support for rough sleepers, but for now the priority is to ensure that everyone, all individuals across the country, have an offer to come inside.”

To get “everyone in” by the weekend, Crisis says the Government should launch a national appeal for accommodation, which would include empty apartment blocks and hotels.

And it should provide funding so councils can pay for the upfront costs of getting everyone into accommodation.

Councillor James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “This will be a huge task given the shortage of accommodation available, with many councils now affected by the recent closures of hotels and the difficulties some have faced where rough sleepers refuse to engage or take up the offer of help.

“To help these efforts, some councils will need to call on the Government for urgent help to find accommodation and enforce this and have access to funding if they need to cover additional staffing and support costs.”

It comes as the Health and Social Care Committee of MPs, which met on Thursday, heard concerns that some hotels were resistant to making rooms available for homeless people.

Conservative MP for Watford, Dean Russell, said his impression was that hotels are open to helping NHS workers and people in care but “fear there might be damage to rooms or related issues” if they help the homeless.

James Bullion, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, replied: “It’s a really difficult area of work this, actually, and I absolutely recognise about the issue of hotels being somewhat resistant to this.

“And we have had examples up and down the country of actually hotels closing and causing homelessnes in some circumstances, which is very distressing.”

An MHCLG spokesman said: “We are working intensively with councils and the sector to get everyone who is sleeping rough off the streets and into appropriate accommodation – backed by £1.6 billion of additional funding for councils to respond to pressures during this national emergency.

“This is a huge joint effort and we all need to come together – including councils, charities, health and care services, and accommodation providers –  to protect rough sleepers from the virus and ensure councils have the support and crucially the accommodation they need to make this happen.”