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Photograph: Time Out/Shutterstock
Photograph: Time Out/Shutterstock

How has the UK’s homeless situation changed since the pandemic?

Experts worry we’ll see a return to pre-pandemic levels of rough sleeping

Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

Sure, the pandemic was (is) pretty shit. But it did bring about a few good things – and, no, we’re not talking about your sourdough skills. While we were all busy thinking the world was coming to an end, a record number of rough sleepers were swept off London’s streets and into hotels.

It was all thanks to a big government campaign called Everyone In. Since the launch of the campaign last year, more than 5,000 former rough sleepers in London have found settled accommodation, while a further 1,800 people are now in short-term solutions like hostels (according to London Councils). Those numbers look okay, right? But it’s difficult to quantify the real picture, as hundreds more homeless people remain on the streets of the capital. So what’s really happened to London’s homeless since restrictions have lifted? 

Crisis, the national homeless charity, says that the pandemic measures had a huge impact. ‘Everyone In really transformed what could be done to tackle rough sleeping, if the funding and the political will was there,’ says Ruth Jacob, senior policy and parliamentary affairs officer at Crisis.

‘An issue with London is the complexity of having different local authorities with their own pathways of finding housing'

People were given single hotel rooms with their own washing facilities, rather being shoved into shelters or given communal sleeping arrangements – which not only saved lives, but also provided a much more stable base for finding jobs or more permanent housing. The plan was for charities, local authorities and central government to work together to then move people into long term accommodation. And while this didn’t always mean that people found secure tenancies, it did a pretty decent job.

‘But what we’re seeing now is worrying,’ Jacob says. ‘Although the actual number of people sleeping on the streets of London is lower than it was pre-pandemic, the number on the streets long-term is increasing again.’

A few people remain in Everyone In hotels while they look for move-on options, but the scheme overall has started to wind down – meaning that now, new or returning rough sleepers won’t be able to access the same support. And then there’s the bigger picture: furlough has ended, the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit has ended, and the eviction ban has also gone. Add in colder nights, rising energy prices, and endless waiting lists for affordable housing, and things are looking pretty bleak. There’s a real worry that London is about to see a return to its pre-pandemic levels of rough sleeping.

It’s not all abstract stuff, either. Last month, AKT – a charity supporting homeless LGBTQ+ young people – had numerous rough sleepers turn up at its office doors, desperate for support. ‘That hasn’t happened in a very long time,’ says Hayley Speed, AKT’s assistant director of services.

Speed says the charity is seeing more rough sleepers in all of its UK cities, but especially in London. ‘An issue with London is the complexity of having different local authorities with their own pathways of finding housing, making it hard to navigate the system,’ she says. ‘London also has a higher proportion of trans young people and people of colour compared to other regions, so they have to navigate those additional stigmas.’

For minority groups in the capital – such as LGBTQ+ youth who don’t always resemble ‘your traditional rough sleepers’ – Everyone In wasn’t wholly effective, Speed explains. It was difficult to reach the hidden homeless, who might sofa-hop to secure a roof for the night. 

‘We need to see funding for pilots continued rather than rolled back'

Still, the campaign was probably the biggest response to homelessness that we’ve ever seen in this country – and it seems pretty damn ridiculous that a lot of its progress could be lost if something similar isn’t put into place long-term. A lot of the big boys agree. A fancy-named report called the Kerslake Commission, published last month by a group of cross-party politicians and experts from the health, housing and homelessness sectors, recommends that urgent action needs to be taken.

So, what now? 

‘Schemes like Housing First, piloted in Greater Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands, where people get their own long-term tenancy and wraparound support, have proved to be successful,’ Jacob says. ‘We need to see funding for pilots continued rather than rolled back, and also rolled out across the country and scaled up for London.’ 

Crisis has predicted that almost a quarter of rough sleepers in England who were protected during the pandemic could fall back into homelessness if Housing First isn’t rolled out – ASAP. But we’ll have to wait until at least the end of the month to find out about any future funding, when the government (who pledged to end rough sleeping by 2024, btw), sets their next budget. 

If you see someone sleeping rough in London, Crisis recommends asking if them they’d like to be put in touch with homeless services via StreetLink. 

Pod homes with £5-a-week running costs are being built for London’s homeless.

This shower on wheels is helping London’s homeless.

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