On 23 March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued the public with what he called “a very simple instruction: you must stay at home”.
For 55-year-old Dean, in Cobham, Surrey, this instruction was actually rather complicated. Ten days earlier, his home had burned to the ground. To make matters worse he was undergoing chemotherapy, leaving him particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. He appealed to an elderly relative to take him in, but they, worried about the risk of infection, refused.
Dean asked his local council for help, but had little success – so, until the week of the first lockdown, he was staying in night shelters.
“I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy,” Dean says. “It spiritually broke me.”
Less than 30 miles away, in central London, Rick Henderson, the chief executive of the homelessness umbrella group Homeless Link, was discussing with colleagues how they could manage working from home. Then it hit them.
“How can you stay home if you haven’t got a home?” he says. “We came to this stark realisation – we’re asking homeless people to do something they simply can’t.”
The challenge was a double whammy: night shelters and other temporary accommodation were likely to be unsuitable for social distancing.
“We had some very serious concerns at the time that Covid-19 would sweep through the homeless population, where there are high levels of vulnerability and it’s hard to do handwashing,” Henderson says.
For the Homelessness Link team, the nightmare scenario was “hundreds of deaths”.
“The scale of it was pretty extreme,” Henderson says. “I can remember saying almost flippantly, joking: ‘Well all the hotels are closed, why not put people in there?’”
As unlikely as it seems, that’s what happened. Three days after the lockdown was announced the government told councils that all rough sleepers should have a roof over their heads by the weekend: Everyone In. It was a Thursday.
At the time, it was estimated that about 4,700 people were sleeping rough in England (although Henderson says it’s generally accepted in the homelessness sector that the real figure is likely to be much higher).
Within a week, local authorities, voluntary organisations and other services had moved 90 per cent of identified rough sleepers into temporary accommodation, according to the Parliamentary Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. Hotels opened their doors, and councils and charities sought accommodation wherever they could.
Figures published in January estimate that about 37,430 people were helped into some form of accommodation under the Everyone In scheme. This included rough sleepers, those who were sofa-surfing or staying with friends and family but found themselves turned out as a result of the pandemic, and those unable to pay their rent after losing their jobs in lockdown.
Dean moved into emergency accommodation provided by the homelessness and housing charity Rentstart (see boxout).
Without the initiative, University College London researchers estimate that an additional 242 people experiencing homelessness would have died. And the move had benefits beyond putting a roof over people’s heads.
Ruth Jacob, senior policy and parliamentary affairs officer at Crisis, says: “It provided time and space for people to engage with services in a way it’s very hard to when you’re on the streets and worrying about what you’re going to eat.”
Henderson agrees, saying that health services, in particular, were able to engage people on key issues such as drugs, alcohol and mental health.
“There was fantastic work to engage with people and their needs and piece together packages of support in ways that would never have happened under any other circumstances,” he says. “It’s notoriously difficult to get health on board where it comes to homeless people, but because Covid-19 is a health issue, we could get them on board, and we’re pretty confident of being able to keep them around the table now.”
‘A move to stop superspreaders’
From the outside, the scale and fast turnaround of the operation, particularly on an issue as entrenched and long-standing as homelessness, seemed nothing short of miraculous – a rare bright spot in the early months of the pandemic.
But Helen Watson, chief executive of Rentstart, the Surrey charity that supported Dean, is more reserved in her judgement.
“This wasn’t a humanitarian response to homelessness, it was a move to stop potential superspreaders,” she says, describing the scheme as “the perfect mistake” that showed what could be achieved with the will and funds.
For those, like Dean, who found permanent accommodation and were offered a fresh start through Everyone In, the legacy of the initiative can’t be overstated. But as the country begins to reopen, the question is: what happens now?
For Jacob, the sector faces a tipping point. “There’s a real opportunity for the government to continue that investment and a will from local authorities to continue doing everything,” she says. “Now the government should be acting to ensure we don’t look back on this as a wasted opportunity.”
In the early days, Jacob says the government directive was clear: everyone needs to be off the streets. This included those who normally would not be allowed to access public funds.
But, she says, that message has been diluted. “Since the end of the first lockdown there have been mixed messages over whether local authorities should continue to accommodate everyone or if eligibility criteria apply. There’s a lack of clarity over who they can and can’t help.”
An additional challenge is that many local authorities simply don’t have the funding to continue the same level of provision in the long term, resulting in geographical discrepancies, according to Henderson.
“Some councils have managed to get their rough sleeper numbers down to zero whereas in others it’s still really high,” he says.
Henderson acknowledges that Everyone In gave local authorities a much stronger impetus to act. “If you bring people in, you create an expectation and you can’t be seen to put them on the street, that would be inhumane.” But he adds: “I can’t pretend there aren’t many of us in the homelessness sector who are very anxious about what’s going to happen.”
Watson agrees, warning that, if anything, things are likely to get worse – rents outside major cities are likely to rise as remote workers increase demand and, with furlough and the eviction ban coming to an end, more people “are looking down the barrel of that gun”.
“You don’t normally get many airline pilots calling because they’re frightened they might lose their job – but that’s what we’ve been seeing,” she says.
Everyone in for good
Earlier this year, the homelessness charity Shelter submitted Freedom of Information requests to every local authority in England asking what had happened to those helped by Everyone In.
The resulting data showed that more than three-quarters of those initially accommodated – about 29,000 people – were in the kinds of insecure accommodation that make them more likely to be tipped back into homelessness, such as emergency or temporary accommodation or staying with friends.
Shelter’s chief executive, Polly Neate, says charities are at an “interesting moment”.
“We worked closely with the government on Everyone In and praised them, but at some point, you have to bite the bullet and say how it is,” she says. “It never was going to be anything but an emergency solution unless they were prepared to invest in the long term. The big factor that made it happen was the government was prepared to spend a lot of money on it, and now they’re not.”
Long-term planning and investment
The Kerslake Commission on Homelessness and Rough Sleeping has said calculating how much extra funding was involved is challenging, but estimated another £82m a year – 32 per cent on top of what the government planned to spend – would be required to maintain the initiative.
In its interim report on the issue, published in June, Lord Robert Kerslake, the commission’s chair, said: “This would be a small price to pay to maintain and build on the advances made”.
But in addition to funding, Neate says the government needs to address “the systemic, structural reasons why these intractable issues persist”. Ultimately, she says, the majority of homelessness can be solved if there are enough homes for people to live in.
“If you give someone somewhere safe and secure to stay, it’s possible to work with them to sort their life out,” she says. “It just takes a bit longer than the pandemic, and they need somewhere permanent.”
For Shelter, investment in building homes – particularly social housing – is key. It wants the government to invest £12.8bn a year for the next 10 years to build 90,000 social homes a year.
In the short term, keeping the £20 uplift added to Universal Credit and the Working Tax Credit in March 2020 would go a long way to offering security to people at risk of homelessness. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates this would cost £6.4bn in 2021/22.
The government could also relax the rules that deny people with certain immigration statuses recourse to public funds, Neate says.
Henderson has pinned many of his hopes for long-term reform on the government spending review, due to take place this autumn.
“At the moment, things are done year on year in a very piecemeal, sticking-plaster kind of way,” he says. “We’re looking for something more long-term, so we can plan and invest in services that we know work.”
And Jacob argues that the government needs to revisit its Rough Sleeper Strategy – the manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping for good by 2027. The most recent strategy documents were released in 2018, so she wants the government to explain how it intends to revise its plans in the wake of the pandemic.
Neate says: “What the government did with this emergency stuff was buy itself time to deal with some of these underlying issues – and then didn’t use the time to do that. What we’re seeing is the same crisis that existed before, but even worse because of Covid-19.”
But even in the face of a spike in demand, there is a sense that organisations tackling the crisis won’t be starting from square one.
In the early months of the pandemic, Watson says, “charities were nimble and responsive and local authorities reached out to them – without charities and that level of partnership and support, it wouldn’t have happened.”
The partnerships forged in those weeks, she says, will outlive the pandemic.
Neate agrees. “The unsung reason why it was a success is that you had charities, councils and hoteliers working really successfully together. It helped people see that there is an answer.”
Despite her warnings, she is optimistic that the government will have to acknowledge that answer and take long-term action.
“It is inevitable that this crisis is going to hit them in the face, and it’s our job to make that happen,” she says. “And I do believe that, at some point, it will happen.”