It’s odd how many things can change in a year and how much else stays the same. On a Saturday morning in late December 2019, I made my way to Haverstock school in north London for the first morning of Crisis at Christmas.
Every year since 1972, the charity has offered winter shelter and services over the festive period for homeless people all over London and the rest of the UK. Thousands of guests come through their doors every year, served by more than 10,000 volunteers.
It had just gone 11am when I’d arrived to find the corridors filled with people and activity. In the repurposed cafeteria, I talked with David, a softly spoken man in his late 60s who had been a guest a couple of years before. It was provision that had been, in his carefully emphasised words, “a total life-saver”.
The UK’s winter homelessness shelters are preparing to open for the first time since the start of the pandemic. This year, things are set to be different. On 13 October, the government released new guidelines on the provision of night shelters in England. Among the new operating principles was the diktat that rotating night shelters (where a different venue is used each night, with people moving each day) should not be used because of the risk of transmitting Covid-19. Such shelters are usually a staple: communal spaces, often repurposed church halls or community centres, with the promise of a bed, a square meal and access to services. They are typically bustling, cramped spaces. The new guidelines make this impossible, although shelters that have been “modified to minimise risk of infection” will be allowed to remain open to help meet demand when needed. These changes are expensive to implement, making it inevitable that many people will slip through the cracks.
With the recent end of both the furlough scheme and eviction ban, there are fears of a sudden spike in homelessness in the coming months. Every year, there are dozens of avoidable homelessness deaths in winter, all over the country. But 2020 is shaping up to be a perfect storm of threats: inclement weather, plus the novel threats of the pandemic and its accompanying economic fallout. The new guidelines mean that capacity in the shelters will be reduced.
Glass Door, the charity that runs the largest open-access network of homeless shelters in the country, saw up to 170 people come through their doors every night last winter. Although they plan to offer single hostel rooms, it appears inevitable that the numbers they can help will drop, despite the potential spike in demand. After the new restrictions were announced I spoke to Neil Parkinson, a senior caseworker at the charity. “Sleeping in shared spaces isn’t possible for understandable reasons, so the night shelters as we normally run them aren’t going to happen. [Whatever we do] is going to have much less capacity. We’re very concerned about the rise in need,” he said.
None of this was inevitable. In March, the government-backed scheme Everyone In rehoused more than 15,000 rough sleepers in hotels and temporary accommodation across the country. Although not without its flaws, it was at least decisive. And it saved lives. A recent study published by the Lancet concluded that 266 deaths were avoided during the spring by the housing of rough sleepers in self-contained accommodation. The logic then was that cramped shelters and hostels were not safe places to be in a pandemic, for guests or staff alike. Data from other countries seems to confirm this. In Paris, researchers from Médecins Sans Frontières found that one in two of the 543 people tested in emergency shelters had come into contact with Covid, while work by a New York homelessness charity showed the mortality rate from coronavirus for people staying in shelters was 61% higher than the rate among the general population.
What exactly has changed between then and now? The virus is still out there, with all signs pointing to the start of the long-predicted “second wave”. Winter shelters, although effective emergency provisions, were clearly not going to be able to operate safely at anything like their usual capacity. There has been plenty of time to plan a response to an issue that everyone could see coming. The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is an unwillingness to spend money. In June, the government announced that it had spent £105m keeping rough sleepers safe during the start of the pandemic. Its new winter package amounts to £12m, a funding reduction of more than 90%, split between local authorities and faith-based groups.
For many working in the sector, it is flatly unacceptable. Earlier this month, Crisis was one of 17 charities that wrote to the government asking for a repeat of the spring investment that saw thousands of rough sleepers rehoused in self-contained accommodation. Why, ran their argument, should the new choice be between freezing on the street or being housed in unsafe shelters? Despite government platitudes about continuing to support the UK’s street homeless population, it’s the current inaction that reveals a better glimpse of what’s to come. In late August, the government’s “homelessness tsar”, Dame Louise Casey, stepped down from her role as head of the rough sleeping taskforce, having led Everyone In. She has still not been replaced, with little in the way of official comment or explanation.
The provision of enough safe shelter for those living with homelessness this winter will have an obvious positive outcome: the preservation of life. It will take funding as well as clear guidance to achieve. Leaving charities and frontline workers to make do as best they can under enormously challenging circumstances is not just an abdication of responsibility to some of the most vulnerable in our society. It is also cruel.
• Francisco Garcia is a London-based writer and journalist