LSE London is currently looking at the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic is affecting homelessness provision. We are asking how Covid 19 has affected the need for temporary accommodation; how emergency legislation and guidance have addressed the issues; how the costs are being funded; and how we can manage the challenges of the next few months. Our research focuses on London but has resonance across England and the rest of the UK. Here, in the first of a series of blogs, we clarify how the initial government responses have played out so far.
Covid 19 has impacted heavily on both the demand for temporary housing and the potential supply. As always, the pressures are greatest in London.
When the virus hit, the immediate message was that everyone should ‘stay at home’. This raised two distinct issues: not everyone had a home to stay in; while others were at risk of losing theirs.
The initial policies: keep people in their existing accommodation and house those on the street
In late March the government moved quickly to address these issues. Their first move was to require landlords to give three months’ notice before they could apply to the court to start proceedings for eviction. A few days later all court eviction proceedings were suspended for 90 days. Both measures have now been extended to ensure at least in principle, that no-one is at risk of eviction before the end of August.
On Thursday March 26th, in what became known as the ‘Everyone In’ policy, the government instructed local authorities across England to accommodate all rough sleepers in suitable accommodation by the weekend in light of ‘this public health emergency’.
Fewer people are coming forward in need of temporary accommodation and large numbers of rough sleepers have been found accommodation (often in hotels), but there has been no move-on for those who were already living in temporary accommodation.
The suspension of evictions was clearly directed at making sure people could stay in their existing accommodation. Of course, there have been some illegal evictions, which have led to local authorities having to find temporary accommodation. Equally, some people are not covered by the suspension, including in particular those with informal arrangements (e.g. sofa surfing or living with friends and family). Some have had to leave their homes because of domestic violence. Some were kicked out because they lost their jobs, because of fear of the virus, or sometimes simply because those whom they were staying with no longer wanted to accommodate them. Some found their own solutions and others ended up sleeping rough, but the eviction ban has generally had the intended effect of reducing the numbers coming forward in need of temporary accommodation.
On the other hand, hardly any existing temporary accommodation has been vacated. Under lock-down, local authorities have been unable to move people from TA into secure accommodation in the normal way. So almost any level of new homelessness acceptances has meant finding additional accommodation.
The biggest immediate initiative, the ‘Everyone In’ policy, looked to bring all those sleeping rough or in shared sleeping facilities such as shelters, into safe accommodation. Based on an April snapshot from English local authorities, MHCLG reckoned that 90% of individuals identified by local authorities as rough sleepers or in ‘shared sleeping sites’– a total of around 5,400 people–had been accommodated. The majority were placed in hotels that were empty because of the pandemic.
In evidence submitted to the Housing Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s Enquiry into the Impact of Covid 19 on Homelessness and the private rented sector, almost everyone praised the initiative. But not surprisingly there are emerging problems.
First, a later snapshot showed much higher numbers than initially expected, in part because of the inflow of ‘new’ rough sleepers. By mid-May the number of individuals offered accommodation had risen to 14,600, of which just over 30% were being housed by London authorities. This figure included not just those who have become vulnerable to rough sleeping since the crisis – a problem likely to continue to grow – but also those from ‘shared sleeping sites’ and other high risk acommodation.
Secondly, and importantly, local authorities interpreted ‘Everyone In’ as meaning just that. But a significant proportion of those who have been housed are people with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) – that is to say, migrants who do not have Indefinite Leave to Remain. In London at the end of April they made up an estimated 25% of those accommodated, and possibly more. Some do formally have rights to limited local authority support to prevent homelessness; others do not. For the moment local authorities are generally arguing, as stated in the original Ministerial letter, that the pandemic is a public health emergency which makes it imperative to provide suitable accommodation. However, there is considerable concern that government has not recognised the scale of the problem. Whatever is the longer term position, local authorities are currently paying the bill.
Third, the government initially gave local authorities a lump sum of £3.2m specifically to help support rough sleepers, while the GLA provided £40m to pay towards hotel and other accommodation. Since then there have been no more specific funds made available, even though numbers have risen so significantly.
Into the longer term
At some point, those accommodated under ‘Everyone In’ need to be re-housed. There is also likely to be a significant spike in the numbers of evicted households in need of temporary accommodation. New measures will have to be put in place to avert a secondary crisis.
As yet relatively little thought has been given to how the current situation can be unwound. All that has really been said (particularly in evidence to the Select Committee) is that most stakeholders see this situation as an opportunity to solve the problem of homelessness into the longer term. But equally, most see central government funding as the only way to achieve this goal. Meanwhile there is growing concern about a continuing build-up of potential evictions, which will need to be addressed in the next months.
So far, the government has done two things: appointed Louise Casey to head a Covid 19 taskforce and brought forward £160 million to build 6,000 units across England (3,300 within the year) to rehouse rough sleepers. Both moves are welcome but do not address the immediate issues.
These problems are not going to go away. Together they threaten to overwhelm local authority housing departments, who will need to find both the money and the frontline staff to manage their growing responsibilities for rehousing and the prevention of homelessness. We will look at these issues in our next blog.