'Tsunami of homelessness' - Concerns ahead of furlough ending

Nobody makes it their life ambition to become a rough sleeper, says Dr Jan Sheldon

A homeless person sleeping in a doorway. Photo: Getty Images/saints4757 - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A month after Covid restrictions came to an end, homeless people are back on the streets - and the numbers could be set to rise. 

When lockdown went into effect last year the government put in place the Everyone In policy and within 48 hours the majority of homeless people were brought into accommodation. 

But Jan Sheldon, chief executive of the Norwich-based St Martins housing charity, said: "We are starting to see the impact of Covid.

“The Everyone In policy worked fantastically well - about 87pc of the people in emergency accommodation went on to have secure and permanent housing.”  

Ms Sheldon said they had hoped to see the numbers of people on the streets down into single figures, but despite housing more than 100 rough sleepers, Norwich is now back to pre-pandemic levels, with a mixture of new and old faces.

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“It’s never one story, but we're seeing a turn-up of people losing their homes and jobs through the pandemic - it’s the people teetering on the edge, people who were in a precarious position, the pandemic pushed them over," she said.

Jan Shledon, chief executive of St Martins

Jan Shledon, chief executive of St Martins - Credit: David Cullingford

The end of furlough is the next big concern for Ms Sheldon, with government funding being the only thing keeping people off the streets.

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“I’m an optimist, but we are quite concerned about when furlough comes to an end – it could be a tsunami of homelessness.  

“It just comes down to that investment and stopping people hitting the streets [in the first place].  

“When there is the political will, you can get people off the streets literally in 48 hours."  

However, not all of Norfolk has seen the homeless numbers return to pre-pandemic levels. 

Paula Hall, chief executive of Purfleet Trust in King's Lynn, said its numbers remained low. 

Ms Hall said the pandemic had enabled closer working with West Norfolk Council and that it had been supported with funding from the ministry of housing, communities and local government (MHCLG).

She said: "We had [a call about] someone a week ago and we were able to get them into accommodation within a day.

"Because of our processes we are able to respond immediately so we can prevent people from rough sleeping for more than one night."

The Purfleet Trust in Kings Lynn host their Christmas dinner with the Mayor Carol Bower as a guest.

Paula Hall at the Purfleet Christmas dinner - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Ms Hall said the key was taking early, preventative measures and making sure the accommodation is tailored to the person - not everyone will want to be in a hostel or live on their own.

The Purfleet chief executive echoed Ms Sheldon's furlough concerns but hoped the processes the team has put in place will ensure measures can be taken to help people as quickly as possible.

Nationally, figures seen by the BBC and housing charity Shelter show that fewer than one in four homeless people housed by the government scheme moved into permanent accommodation.

Shelter warned that many of the 37,000 rough sleepers housed by the scheme are still in temporary homes or back on the streets.

Both Norfolk charity bosses also praised the local councils for their support, but Ms Sheldon levelled criticism at the government.

A person sleeping rough on a bench outside Norwich City Hall.

A person sleeping rough on a bench outside Norwich City Hall. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

“Clearly the evidence suggests that not enough is being done to help people get off the streets," Ms Sheldon said.

“We have seen with the political will and the investment you can keep people off the streets but evidence suggests that there’s insufficient will nationally.”  

Ms Sheldon argues two things are needed – sufficient housing to accommodate everyone but also the funding in place to offer specialist support for people to help keep them off the streets.  

A spokesperson for MHCLG told the BBC Shelter's analysis failed to take into account those who had moved in with family and friends and the department was tracking the outcome of people helped by Everyone In with results to be published soon.

What's it like for people who've been on the streets?

Jimmy, 28

Jimmy had been staying at St Martins dry house when the pandemic hit.

While regularly attending narcotics and alcoholics anonymous meetings, his main therapy had been the gym.

“The gym helped me deal with all my negativity. When the virus hit, I didn’t realise how much I relied on it. It screwed me totally,” he said.

Jimmy, who has anxiety, had experienced lapses in his addiction but overall he was progressing well. When lockdown hit he did not have the strength to maintain the progress he made.

Once he had resumed drinking, Jimmy could no longer stay at the Dry House so he was offered a room at St Martins' hostel Bishopbridge House. 

Jimmy said: “I had put a good effort in, and admitted my mistakes so St Martins gave me another chance.” 

Now Jimmy is focusing on healthy behaviours rather than negative ones. 

He said: “I’m paying my bills and responding to my responsibilities. Trying to put roots back in. I need to chip away at my bills. 

"When they’re out of the way I just need to keep my nut down.” He is looking forward to the day when he can get a place of his own. 

“I feel that’s going to be an exciting part of my life. That’ll be true independence.” 

Carol, 57* 

Carol, who has mental health problems and physical needs, has been well known to St Martins for a long time - their first contact was in 2015. 

She can be violent and aggressive and in the past hasn’t engaged well with the support on offer. 

Carol has been known to sleep rough on and off since April 2019 and the Pathways team have encountered her sleeping on the streets numerous times. 

Last winter, Carol was offered a hotel room and used this continuously right through from November. 

Support workers felt that she was starting to get somewhere now that she had a safe place to stay at night. 

However, she was vulnerable and needed somewhere to stay in the daytime. 

She has been placed in the Annexe, a separate part of one of the hotels that was self-contained and guests could stay throughout the day. 

Carol stayed here until the end of March 2021, when she moved on to a ‘Housing First’ project this summer. 

Through this route, Carol will get permanent accommodation and her own tenancy after a year. 

Sam, 36 *

Sam was released from prison with no fixed address and was sleeping rough in Norwich.

The Pathways team first met him on an early morning street count in January 2021, and later spoke to him during street outreach.

The team were able to offer him hotel accommodation starting that same day. 

At the hotel, Sam had a safe, warm place to stay with clean sheets and an en-suite bathroom.

During that time, support workers got to know Sam and assessed his needs and devised a plan for him to move on.

Knowing exactly where he was each night enabled the team to resolve the issues preventing Sam from accessing a more permanent place to stay. 

After three weeks of using hotel accommodation, Sam moved into Bishopbridge House, a hostel run by St Martins.

*Names have been changed.

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