The mayor of London has warned that funding for the coronavirus emergency programme to house all rough sleepers in hotels will run out in mid-June, and without new government money there could be a surge in homeless people returning to the streets.
About 1,400 of the capital’s homeless people are currently staying in hotels at the state’s expense. “Unless we get support from the government, we haven’t got the money to continue literally to pay for the hotels past the middle of June,” Sadiq Khan said. Beyond that point, “I can’t hand on heart tell you how we can fund the work we’re doing,” he added.
Khan said he wanted to be optimistic about the possibility that the drive to bring all rough sleepers into hotels to stop the spread of the virus could have a permanent positive impact on homelessness in the capital, allowing charities time to work to help find longer-term solutions for rough sleepers.
It could be “the one silver lining from this awful virus”, he added. But he was increasingly concerned about whether central government funding would stretch to make this possible.
“We could be the generation that ends rough sleeping; we think we are on the cusp of something amazing, but it could go either way. I can’t sugar-coat it. Unless the government steps in by the middle of June, there will be a cliff-edge fall,” the mayor said in an interview with the Guardian.
“That will be so heartbreaking because we have met people who have been on our streets for years and this is the first time they have accepted help.”
He welcomed a government announcement on Saturday that funding would be brought forward to make an extra 3,300 homes available to prevent rough sleepers returning to the streets. But he said it was “vital that the government guarantees it will continue levels of support for rough sleepers right now, ensuring that we can continue to provide emergency accommodation to protect them from this deadly pandemic”.
Since lockdown was announced in March, more than 5,400 rough sleepers have been placed in Holiday Inns, Travelodges and Ibis hotels all over of England. Similar schemes are in operation elsewhere in the UK.
Those who have been staying in hotels under the emergency scheme are increasingly anxious about their future, many of them monitoring the news as announcements are made about the easing of lockdown.
Rising speculation about the resumption of summer holiday planning has triggered concern about when the hotels housing the homeless may need to open to their regular clients.
Homelessness charities such as Glass Door are concerned about the absence of an exit plan setting out what will happen to hotel residents once lockdown ends.
“Anxiety is starting to be more prevalent. We don’t know when this is going to be terminated, when are they going to be asked to leave and what is the exit strategy,” said Alex Norris, a case worker with the London charity.
“Individuals are really worried, asking us: have you heard about what will happen after the hotels reopen? People who are sleeping rough do not want to go back to that situation.”
Khan said he was hoping London’s homeless could continue to be housed until mid-August, which would give the charities working with them enough time to help people find longer-term housing.
“We think that is enough time to provide the support they need – help for alcohol dependency, help for drug dependency – we could get a plan in place,” he said. “If the hotels have got to be emptied out [before then], I can’t answer the question. Where do they go?”
For the moment, he said hotels remained “enthusiastic about helping out”. The Greater London Authority is paying £30-£40 for each room.
Khan said: “Of course they can’t get tourists to stay in hotel rooms, so this is an opportunity to get some revenue. This is a virtuous circle: the government gives us money to get rough sleepers in off the streets, we keep them safe and potentially get them off the streets for good; the hotels are can stay in business, because they are receiving this money.
“There is no shortage of hotel space. We won’t see these hotels saying in June or July: can you please leave because we have tourists arriving. By and large the hotels by and large are being fantastic.”
So far, things had gone reasonably smoothly. “The hotels were concerned about what sort of people they would get – there were worries about alcohol issues, drug issues, antisocial behaviour,” Khan said.
Charities had adapted the hotels to make them suitable. “You can’t simply book a hotel room and send rough sleepers there,” he said. “There has to be wrap-around care: doctors, counselling, therapy.”
There has been some damage to some hotel rooms, mostly minor: people smoking in non-smoking rooms, some damage to doors. “Some people have complex mental health issues, which have been exhibited in damage to rooms,” Khan said.
The government has said about 90% of rough sleepers have been housed in hotels. However, Khan said this was not the case in London, where 400-600 newly homeless people were arriving on the streets every week. “The government is not helping us with the new people on the streets,” he said.
Some are hospitality workers who have lost their jobs, lodgers who have been asked to leave, people experiencing domestic abuse fleeing violence, and about half are EU citizens who have no right to access benefits (because they have not been working for long enough in the UK) and other non-EU migrants who have no right to access public funds.
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “Any suggestion we are rowing back on our commitment to support rough sleepers is untrue.
“We have given councils in London £517 million to deal with the immediate pressures they are facing – including to support rough sleepers – and the Greater London Authority has been given £18m much of which is being used to support rough sleepers.”