Protecting rough sleepers during the Covid-19 emergency

The council has now placed over 70 people into hotels and hostels, with more following every day, and will ensure they can stay there for the duration of the period in which the government maintains its social distancing policy.

Ealing’s excellent transport links, first-rate schools and longstanding status as ‘Queen of the Suburbs’ make it a very desirable place to live, which means it has been hit particularly hard by the housing crisis. Almost 10,000 households in the borough are in urgent need of affordable housing. Rents are rising, benefits are being cut and despite London’s biggest council homebuilding plan, there is nowhere near enough social housing available to meet demand.

Evictions banned

Parliament has passed emergency legislation means that evictions have been temporarily banned and from now until the end of the crisis, no-one can be evicted from their homes, which should keep the number of homeless households in check.  The overwhelming majority of those families live in temporary accommodation provided by the council, which could be a house or flat, a hostel or a bed and breakfast. 

Some people, however, are not usually eligible for help or choose not to seek help and end up sleeping rough. Recently, a number of local shelters have also had to temporarily close because they don’t allow for the necessary degree of social distancing between the people staying there. 

The council’s outreach workers are contacting all of the borough’s rough sleepers to offer them emergency accommodation, without considering the usual eligibility rules. Before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ealing had approximately 20 rough sleepers on its streets at any given time – down from around 60 just two years ago. This is thanks to intensive work the council and its partners are doing to provide support to people living and sleeping on the borough’s streets.

Complex needs

A majority of rough sleepers in Ealing have complex needs, with either a mental health condition, substance dependency issues or both, so providing support can be very challenging. In Ealing, a significant number do not normally have recourse to public funds, which means they do not have access to the benefits system. 

A very small number of rough sleepers are resistant and untrusting of the support being offered and have refused to accept emergency accommodation. The council is keeping each of those cases under constant review. The government has not given councils the power to compel people to accept accommodation or to prohibit rough sleeping. Outreach teams continue to offer support, and any rough sleeper who displays symptoms of Covid-19 will be immediately referred to public health and then the police for intervention, as under such circumstances they have additional powers to safeguard individuals.

Community organisations like Acton Homeless Concern, Ealing Soup Kitchen and Missionaries of Charity Soup Kitchen are continuing protecting rough sleepers by providing food on a daily basis.

To ensure its scarce resources are reserved for the borough’s most vulnerable residents, the council is checking that all rough sleepers who ask for help are genuinely in need. By checking applicants’ housing history, the council is preventing fraudsters from taking advantage of the accommodation currently on offer. It is a crime to anyone to misrepresent their circumstances to access housing that they are not entitled to.  

"No reason why anyone should have to sleep rough"

Councillor Peter Mason is Ealing Council’s lead member for housing, planning and transformation. He said: “The challenge of finding homes at very short notice for all of the borough’s rough sleepers, many of whom are extremely vulnerable, is immense - but we have risen to that challenge. Even before the Covid-19 emergency began, it was a key priority for us to ensure that everyone who needs a bed for the night in the borough could access one, and we have now redoubled our efforts.

“At this time, there is no reason why anyone should have to sleep rough, and we are coordinating with the other London boroughs and the Greater London Authority to ensure people do not slip between the cracks. We will not rest until everyone has a safe and secure roof over their heads, and the support they need to stay off the streets after this crisis is over.

“There are still a few rough sleepers who urgently need a roof over their heads who we have not managed to contact so far, and we need to speak to them to make sure they have somewhere safe to stay. If you are aware of any rough sleepers who remain on the streets, please call Streetlink on 0300 500 0914.

“We are doing all we can to tackle this problem, but bed space is starting to become an issue, and we need more hotel owners and landlords to come forward to help us protect rough sleepers at this desperate time. If you own or manage suitable accommodation that could be let to us to house these vulnerable people, please get in touch with us on 020 8825 8765.”