The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has warned that hundreds of homeless Londoners will be faced with an unenviable choice this winter: either spend a freezing night on the streets or risk catching coronavirus in a communal shelter.
In a letter to the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, the Mayor is demanding that vulnerable homeless Londoners be given the same protections afforded to the rest of society and is calling for guidance to be issued immediately about how winter shelters can be made COVID-secure, alongside urgent funding to ensure alternative safe accommodation.
Under normal circumstances, London’s winter night shelters would begin to open in November as temperatures drop. These facilities often offer communal sleeping space in buildings such as church halls and community hubs, making them unsuitable for complying with ‘the rule of six’. With COVID cases in the capital on the rise, the Mayor is calling for more resources to be given urgently to local authorities to set up accommodation in alternative COVID-secure locations such as hotels.
Despite this fact being well known to those working with rough sleepers, the Government has neither published any guidance to the sector on communal sleeping nor made provision to resource COVID-safe alternatives such as private rooms. This lack of direction has left charities, faith groups and other service providers facing months of uncertainty about whether they will be able to continue their lifesaving work this winter.
While there is an exception to the rule of six for ‘work, and voluntary or charitable services’, allowing the opening of winter night shelters with communal sleeping spaces would expose staff and vulnerable clients to a substantial known infection risk. This would also be contrary to health and safety advice issued to hotels and hostels serving the public, who were ordered to close dormitory accommodation during the pandemic. In addition to this, in areas where the Government decide to prohibit different households mixing, dormitory accommodation would in fact be illegal.
Track and trace is also virtually impossible with rough sleepers, who regularly change location, often with no phones, and no address. This would be the case even without the huge failings in the current testing and tracking system.
At the height of the pandemic, GLA-procured hotels accommodated nearly 1,700 homeless people as part of the Everyone In programme. This played a large part in keeping levels of infection in London’s homeless population far below those seen in other major cities. But the economic uncertainty created by the VIRUS means many new people find themselves sleeping rough in London every day and it is this group who are still on the street for whom effective and COVID-safe accommodation is a vital and pressing need.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan said, “COVID-19 has impacted Londoners all across our city – but it is the most vulnerable who are most at risk of getting seriously ill or dying from the virus. It would simply be callous and inhumane to tell rough sleepers that the price of staying off the streets this winter could be catching COVID-19. Homeless people deserve safety and protection from COVID as much as anyone – this is particularly the case given they often have underlying health conditions.
“Local authorities, charities and others supporting homeless people this winter now need urgent clarity and guidance from ministers. If current Government policy is that it is acceptable to house rough sleepers in non-COVID secure accommodation this winter it needs an immediate rethink, and more resources given to local authorities urgently to set up accommodation in alternative locations such as hotels.”