Local government is at the front line keeping communities going during this outbreak. Those running our public services are having to adapt rapidly to ensure continuity and respond to local community needs.
People who are homeless or sleeping rough are particularly at risk, in terms of contracting the virus or not having access to adequate information or protection, but also from the knock on effects of an already strained safety net being pushed to breaking point.
A letter to the government from ten homelessness charities called for rough sleepers to be treated as a vulnerable group and given the means to protect and isolate themselves in the same way as the over 70s, people with underlying health conditions and pregnant women.
This would mean that people are given self-contained accommodation so they can properly isolate themselves. It also means that measures need to be put in place to ensure that those at risk do not become homeless because of financial hardship or other reasons including having to leave a property due to symptoms of Covid 19. Many people, including families, live in shared temporary accommodation, with shared kitchens and bathrooms, which makes it particularly challenging to self-isolate.
The government announced an additional £3.2m would be made available to reimburse councils for the cost of extra temporary accommodation for those who are unable to self-isolate otherwise. But we know that temporary accommodation is already an enormous cost and that councils are already stretched in terms of their access to suitable places.
This funding is welcome, therefore, but is only a drop in ocean of what will be required. The steady erosion over the past decade of crippling cuts from central government means that the wider network of resources that provided a safety net for vulnerable people is not there when it is desperately needed. This piles more pressure on to statutory services, and a sticking plaster will not enable them to cope if the crisis is protracted. There are calls for the government to abolish Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates, so that people are not in further unnecessary financial jeopardy. These rates set the level at which people in an area are entitled to claim housing allowance and in most of the country they are set well below local average rents. The system of housing benefit has been a consistent challenge, which councils and charities have long argued increases homelessness.
So many of the resources that councils rely on to support their homelessness work is provided by volunteers and the third sector, and these are under acute pressure as people are required to isolate themselves. That being said, council homelessness teams are doing amazing work in keeping the services functioning and prepared.
Around two months ago, with news of the virus emerging from China, Southwark Council began putting plans into action. Getting rough sleepers off the streets and finding emergency accommodation was a first priority. They have mostly achieved this, though there are some who continue to decline support from the council. Southwark is working closely with police and emergency services to keep these people as safe as possible. They are also prioritising access to alternative accommodation for people with positive cases in their home who they may not be able to isolate from.
In order to prepare for what might be around the corner, the council is building resilience into its services. Staff have tested a complete remote service for a two days this week, which has so far run smoothly. As has been the case with municipal offices in Spain and Italy, a central hub for core services remains open, while other offices are closed. Ninety per cent of Southwark staff in the housing and homelessness team are still working in this office, and they are working significantly longer hours.
There are big unknowns in terms of how the crisis will pan out and what the ongoing and long-term impact will be on statutory services like homelessness prevention. As well as masks, suits and boots for staff they are ensuring that they have enough paper and pens should the internet service drop out. They are making hard copies of records.
The risk profile of many vulnerable people in the community is likely to increase as circumstances change and the wider network of public services is further stretched. The effects of a lockdown or quarantine will be significant and officers are worried about levels of domestic violence. There is already a big communications around this, promoting awareness of the support services that are available to those at risk.
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