England & Wales, Global Covid-19, Welfare and equalities

Keeping rough sleepers safe during the pandemic

Photo by Moksha Jain on Unsplash

This article is part of a week of reflection on the past year and what it has meant for individuals, communities and local government. Unlocked: local stories from a global pandemic.

A year ago the government ordered ‘Everyone in’ and accommodation had to be found for all rough sleepers. Aline Clayson, Rough Sleeping Navigator at Southend on Sea Borough Council takes up the story for us.

By the end of March 2020, we had managed to accommodate all rough sleepers in the Southend area who were known to us or seen to be street sleeping, including No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) clients. This was a mammoth task and was very time consuming, especially with the foreign nationals who did not have English as a first language.

Initially as part of the pandemic planning, I was asked to contact local B&Bs and hotels to check pricing and availability. Quite a lot of the hoteliers were reluctant to place our client group due to stigma around homelessness and the proposed risks associated with housing them, which back then, was for an unknown amount of time. My negotiation skills came in handy during these early conversations and the relationships that I subsequently built meant that we could have open and frank discussions to resolve issues that evidently arose around some client’s unconventional behaviours.

The next thing to be looked at was how our job role as Rough Sleeper Navigators for Southend on Sea Borough Council would be adapted from office based to working from home, and what that would look like for both us and our clients, and most importantly whether the level and type of support we could offer would be impacted by the change.

But I am glad to say I think they benefited more from the daily welfare checks either by visit or on the phone. After all, we now knew exactly where they were if they needed help.

Personally, I initially found working from home deflating and isolating. I am someone who likes her freedom. I like jumping in the car to go to work in the morning and greeting my colleagues. However, after a period of adjustment, I began to feel more comfortable with the new arrangements and was able to find my focus and developed a clear plan on what I wanted to achieve.

Our clients who had substance misuse issues found it hard to understand what was going on in the world and how it would actually affect their everyday lives. We had to educate them about the importance of social distancing for their own benefit. Having to stay in their rooms to isolate and social distance had a big impact on some client’s mental health. As they generally have a nomadic way of life, the change for them was very significant. Some would self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. I made sure that they had rapid access to the drugs and alcohol service to maintain telephone support due to the services being closed. When we would visit the B&B they would be so happy to see us that their natural reaction was to try and hug us…it was a lovely gesture but we had to maintain boundaries at all times, which clients struggled to understand.

Together we have achieved some life changing outcomes.

One client had been addicted to crack cocaine for at least the last 20 years and was an extreme hoarder, he was advised to address the hoarding issue and so he decided to sell some of these items. This led to him giving up drugs completely for a period of nine months as it gave him a purpose in life.

Another client was a very complex person who exhibited severe behavioural issues, which included being verbally abusive. This led to him being hard to accommodate, especially as he also refused to work with the additional services or support offered. But with persistence we were able to work with him and gain his trust and he was able to secure a permanent tenancy of his own for the first time in his life.

From my own personal experience, it has been a very challenging time with lots of up and downs. I permanently worried about the virus, especially as clients can be very tactile. But I would never want to change the experience I have had over the last 12 months. The Rough Sleeper Navigators have been able to share the experience of some amazing outcomes. Our clients have truly warmed my heart and shown me that having compassion, empathy and patience really can make a difference to the most disadvantaged in our community.

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