Charities have expressed fears about the prospect of a surge in street homelessness after a leaked report suggested that the government will no longer fund an emergency programme to house rough sleepers in hotels.
The report, leaked to the Manchester Evening News, suggested that the Ministry for Communities, Housing & Local Government has now “drawn a line” under its drive to accommodate all rough sleepers, and has told councils it will no longer be funded centrally.
The MHCLG denied that the government was “reneging on the commitment set out at the start of this national emergency”. “We have been clear councils must continue to provide safe accommodation for those that need, and any suggestion that funding is being withdrawn or people asked to leave hotels is unfounded,” a MHCLG spokesperson said.
But amid uncertainty about whether central government or local authorities will be responsible for the rising hotel bills, once initial central government funding runs out, homelessness charities are concerned that there will be pressure to move rough sleepers out of hotels before it has been possible to secure suitable long-term housing for them.
About 5,400 rough sleepers have been moved into hotels since lockdown in England and Wales after the government issued an “everyone in” directive to councils, to stop the spread of the disease. With no tourists or business travellers using the rooms, hotel chains such as Holiday Inn, Travelodge and Ibis have made thousands of hotels available to local councils to house the homeless since the end of March, charging local authorities at a rate understood to be slightly discounted.
People living on the streets, and also those housed in hostel accommodation where it was impossible to practise physical distancing, were offered hotel rooms. But there are growing questions about the long-term sustainability of this emergency exercise and uncertainty about the plans for permanent housing once hotels go back to their normal function.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “It’s completely unacceptable that people are being left abandoned on our streets, and that people are at risk of being kicked out of hotels because councils lack the funds for them to stay.
“There is still a deadly virus out there and, while it’s to be commended that over 5,400 people have been given safe, temporary accommodation, the job simply isn’t finished. In London alone, hundreds remain on the streets – no provision has been made for them and it’s a desperate situation with many left hungry, isolated and at risk.
“The initial emergency response to the outbreak showed what can be done when the political will and leadership from central government is there – but if we retreat into a failed ‘business as usual’, handing the issue back to overstretched local councils with no ring-fenced funding, then we let down not just the thousands experiencing homelessness today, but many thousands more at risk from the economic downturn we are entering.”
Mikkel Juel Iversen, founder of Under One Sky, a voluntary organisation that has been providing food to rough sleepers in central London, said volunteers had been seeing a new rise in the numbers of homeless over the past week.
“Reports are that the streets are getting busier. Last night our Soho and Embankment team came across 190 homeless [people]; the previous Thursday that number was 156. We have seen a significant rise over the last week around Waterloo. Last night our team meet 86 at Waterloo; the same day, the previous week we meet 64,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Local Government Association said: “Councils have put in a monumental effort to get the overwhelming majority of rough sleepers and homeless people off the streets since the coronavirus outbreak began. They want to work with government on a national plan to move them into safe housing with appropriate support.”
The MHCLG spokesperson said £3.2bn of additional government funding had been made to help councils respond to the Covid-19 crisis, and added: “The latest figures show over 90% of rough sleepers known to councils at the beginning of this crisis have now been made offers of safe accommodation and we have announced Dame Louise Casey will spearhead the next phase of the government’s support for rough sleepers during the pandemic.
“While councils continue to provide accommodation to those that need it, it is only responsible that we work with partners to ensure rough sleepers can move into long-term, safe accommodation once the immediate crisis is over.”
A spokesperson forInterContinental Hotels, which is currently accommodating a number of homeless people, said it was unable to comment on “individual guest bookings due to privacy”.