Nobody should be spending winter on the streets

Today’s guest blog is from Thangam Debbonaire MP, Labour MP for Bristol West and shadow Secretary of State for Housing.

For rough sleepers, this lockdown is very different from spring last year. The weather is colder and the virus is more infectious, yet despite these dangers, the government have decided not to reinstate the ‘Everyone In’ programme which quickly got rough sleepers off the streets in March.

This immoral decision is part of a familiar pattern throughout this pandemic. The government has been too slow to act and indifferent to experts’ warnings, allowing risks to build into a dangerous crisis. As far back as July last year, the government was warned they needed to prepare for a tough winter. A government-commissioned report from the Academy of Medical Sciences identified homeless people as especially at risk.

The report stated that rough sleepers could be at increased risk of infection and illness, that homeless hostels were likely places for Covid outbreaks and that quarantine and vaccine measures for homeless people needed specific consideration. It appears now that these warnings have not been heeded. And there are once again people sleeping on the streets.

Throughout the spring, I repeatedly asked the government what information they had on people who had become rough sleepers after ‘Everybody In’ was established. There was no clear answer. Yet they must have known what I knew from discussions with councils and homelessness charities, that people were becoming street homeless and were not covered by the government’s provision.

I know that Bristol City Council and numerous homelessness charities – including St Mungo’s, Caring in Bristol and many others – have worked flat out to try to keep people in accommodation once they were brought in off the streets.  Bristol is a fantastic example of different organisations working together to get rough sleepers into long term support and housing, as part of a wider effort to help 1,200 people with accommodation since March. Our city has continued to make progress in building new affordable homes in spite of the pandemic, and despite Brexit uncertainty too, with Bristol on course to complete 500 new affordable homes this year – more than in any year during the last decade.

But councils like Bristol and leaders like Marvin have had to do that without the full financial support they were promised. They were told by the government that they would have ‘whatever it takes’ and they worked on that basis. Yet here we are months later and councils still haven’t received the full cost in spring. They definitely don’t have the full resources to support rough sleepers now.

However, this isn’t just about money, it’s about leadership. It’s about ensuring the moral imperative that nobody should be living on the streets at any time in a civilised developed country, but especially not at winter or during a pandemic. It’s about following through on the strongly-expressed views of the people of this country, that we do not leave people to struggle in this way.

Street homelessness is not inevitable. It is the result of political choices. Rough sleeping fell steadily through the 2000s until by 2010 it was at historically low levels. But instead of continuing with that progress, successive governments have since presided over increases. This is a consequence of declining incomes, fragile employment, cuts to mental health and addiction services, benefit caps and other choices.

Rough sleeping and wider homelessness was bad before the crisis. Covid has exposed the consequences and made things worse. Inadequate financial support packages and the gaps in these schemes have left too many people struggling to keep up with basic costs and many will have become homeless as a result, often through illegal evictions. More families are living in so-called temporary accommodation (130,000 children were in some form of temporary accommodation in the last quarter of 2020, including around 900 in Bristol) and single people will often end up on the streets, particularly as Covid means they are much less likely to find informal help with friends or family.

It is cold and wet outside. The virus is spreading more rapidly and we know that people with other underlying health conditions are more at risk of getting really ill. There is a moral imperative and a public health necessity for the government to show leadership, act now and make sure nobody is on the streets this winter.