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Homelessness charity says it has ‘never witnessed a more distressing situation’ than during coronavirus crisis

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Trafalgar Square at night is silent and almost empty, the usual crowds of noisy tourists visiting London replaced by clusters of homeless people, who wait on the steps of the National Gallery for food to be distributed. But these are not all long-term rough sleepers: central London is seeing a surge of newly unemployed restaurant and pub workers forced to sleep on the streets because they can no longer afford to pay rent.

Rough sleepers like Martin, a recently-sacked chef from Poland, are finding life under lockdown increasingly difficult and dangerous. “London has become so strange and sad. The only people who are out look like they are looking for drugs. There are a lot of crazy people with knives,” he said.

The city’s day centres have been closed to prevent the transmission of the virus, leaving the homeless with no place to shower or wash their clothes, no toilets and nowhere to access regular food supplies.

The disappearance of commuters means that no one is offering money to the destitute, at a time when most soup kitchens and food banks are not operating, and when the closure of cafes has meant the homeless no longer receive unsold sandwiches at the end of the day. It has been left to a few small groups of volunteers to provide thousands of meals a week.

Martin, 27, worked his way up through London’s kitchens, starting as a porter when he arrived in the UK eight years ago to his most recent job as chef de partie at a fashionable restaurant in east London. He was abruptly sacked shortly before the lockdown began, and had to leave the room he was renting because he had no savings. He has been sleeping on a bit of pavement near Charing Cross station for six weeks.

He said he has been told five or six times by outreach workers that someone will call him to organise a room in a hotel. “I waited for a call. I’m still waiting. Maybe the hotels are full,” he said. In the last couple of days his phone battery has in any case gone dead, and with cafes closed there is nowhere to charge it. He finds sleeping on the street unsafe and alarming.

Brian Whiting, a volunteer with the organisation Under One Sky, which started nightly food deliveries at the end of March, said he was disturbed by the number of newly homeless ex-hotel and restaurant staff. “One of the really distressing new things is the hospitality homeless. We’re seeing so many people who were working in kitchens, hotels and pubs until a few weeks ago. They’re so obviously ill-equipped to be out there. The long-term rough sleepers know how it works, but for them it’s very new. They look shell-shocked.”

“I’m still hanging on to my sanity, just,” a man from South Africa, who had been working for five years as a waiter in London, said from the office doorstep where he has slept for the past three weeks since losing his job. He laughed when the volunteer asked him if he was eligible for furlough payments, and said the job came through an agency, and there had been no mention of financial support. Most of those pushed into homelessness had insecure jobs and precarious living arrangements, and no ability to navigate the benefits system or wait for payments.

The charity Under One Sky provides food for rough sleepers, cooked by the Punjab restaurant in Covent Garden.

The charity Under One Sky provides food for rough sleepers, cooked by the Punjab restaurant in Covent Garden. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian
On the other side of the street, Whiting was dismayed to see Katarina, 34, a recently-sacked waitress from Italy, preparing to sleep again in the doorway of a cocktail bar. “It’s nice to see you, but I wish you weren’t here,” he said, giving food to her. He was concerned about her deteriorating mental health, and suspected she had started taking class A drugs. He has reported her to Streetlink, a charity that connects rough sleepers to support services, a few times, but she remains in the same spot. “She wants to be helped. I don’t understand why she hasn’t been picked up.”

Aside from the practical difficulties, everyone remarks on the disconcerting silence of the capital.

All the normal sounds and smells are absent – the salty, greasy smells from fast food restaurants, the wafts of coffee from snack bars, stale beer odours rising up from sticky pavements, the stench of rotting food seeping out from kitchen dustbins, even the trails of diesel fumes, have all gone.

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Charities join forces to help most vulnerable

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Two charities have joined forces to help the most vulnerable people in society during Covid-19.

The Big Help, which includes Knowsley Foodbank, and Croxteth Federation’s Family Matters Project have  been awarded £39,310 by the Steve Morgan Foundation’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund.

They’ve been using two Steve Morgan Foundation Smiley Buses and two newly-bought eco-friendly eBikes to deliver hundreds of food bags and essential supplies to those most in need.

Following the award they’ve appointed a Community Resilience Manager to oversee four new support staff at both the Liverpool and Knowsley sites.

They have also teamed up with the local shop and pharmacy to provide food and support to those in hardship either by way of collection or through a delivery service.

The charity is also looking to improve IT systems so workers will be able to continue offering advice and information on a range of subjects including food poverty, welfare and debt advice to clients from their homes.

Cllr Peter Mitchell who chairs the board of trustees of both organisations said: “We’re best placed to know what the community needs and the support from the Steve Morgan Foundation has helped make it possible

“Between both organisations we fed over 20,000 people in 2019 and distributed over 100 tonnes of food and now we have the right people in place to face this challenge.

“Our food pantries have been a big success, helping people to help themselves and become less reliant on foodbanks.

“With more than 50 staff and over 125 volunteers supporting us every week, we are ready to face the challenges during this crisis.”

Croxteth Federation’s CEO Ken Eaton said: “It’s about trying to deliver services in a different way. We can respond quickly whether it’s emergency items, advice on welfare benefits or whatever.

“There are a lot of people who are isolated and vulnerable. Because we have access to the minibus, vans and an eBike we can ferry large and small amounts of food around to the people who need them.

“We are delighted with our grant from the Steve Morgan Foundation, which has enabled us to increase staffing capacity to support those experiencing hardship in these difficult times.”

Steve Morgan, founder of the Steve Morgan Foundation, said: “This is a brilliant example of a charity helping the most vulnerable people in society when they need help.”

Rise in people sleeping rough at Heathrow as councils fail to provide accommodation

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Number of homeless people taking refuge at airport doubles since lockdown began.

Dozens of homeless people are sleeping at Heathrow airport after being denied emergency accommodation by councils despite promises from the government that all would be taken off the streets during the coronavirus pandemic, it has emerged.

Since the Covid-19 lockdown began, one of the rough sleepers, a professional woman in her 40s from west Africa who is trying to regularise her immigration status, said that the number in Terminal 5 had more than doubled. She said the rough sleepers were a mix of migrants and British citizens.

“I first started sleeping at the airport last October when I lost my accommodation,” she said. “There were 10-15 of us then. Now we have grown to about 30. We try to support each other by sharing food and things. We have approached different councils asking them to give us accommodation, just until the pandemic is over, but they have refused so we’re still sleeping at the airport.”

Hillingdon council is the closest local authority to Heathrow and some of the rough sleepers said they approached officials there for emergency accommodation during the pandemic but were turned away. A letter from the council’s chief executive, Fran Beasley, dated 16 April, states: “I can confirm that Hillingdon council has taken all necessary steps in assisting known rough sleepers as required and remains fully compliant with government requirements.”

This was written in response to a letter from several organisations expressing concern about the failure to help homeless people get off the streets during the pandemic regardless of their immigration status.

Thousands of rough sleepers still unhoused in England, say charities

“The airport staff are kind to us as long as we behave ourselves,” said the woman sleeping at Terminal 5. “When the virus started the numbers sleeping at the airport grew and I started seeing a lot of unfamiliar faces. It is much safer here than sleeping outside. London is scary at the moment because it’s so empty.”

She said that she had approached several London boroughs including Hillingdon but had been denied accommodation. “If they can’t help us, they should let us stay at the airport,” she said. “The people sleeping here are very calm. They are not using drugs or alcohol. Some of us sleep on the floor. Some on the chairs. There are social distancing notices everywhere and we comply with them.”

A bulletin published on Tuesday from councils about support for migrants with no recourse to public funds during the pandemic says: “Providing additional support for residents is extremely challenging for councils and it is unclear to what extent the government’s Covid-19 emergency funding will adequately meet these costs.

“A consequence of the Home Office not relaxing restrictions on access to benefits during the pandemic for people subject to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition is that local government is likely to incur additional costs when accommodation and financial support needs to be provided.”

Fizza Qureshi, chief executive of the Migrants’ Rights Network, expressed concerns about physical distancing in inadequate spaces. She said: “We are extremely concerned that there are homeless people who are having to shelter in the airport because they have been turned away by local authorities … The only thing that is heartwarming is that they are building their own community to lean on during this crisis.”

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “In line with government guidelines, Heathrow is applying the necessary social distancing measures at our airport, which sees us strictly limiting airport access to passengers, colleagues and those with a reason for entry. We are asking all other members of the public to leave to ensure their safety and the safety of others. All new arrivals at the airport who are struggling to find accommodation will be asked to return to their point of origin and contact StreetLink for support.”

Hillingdon council said: “The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is leading on rehousing the rough sleepers based at Heathrow airport. We have offered accommodation to all of the rough sleepers in other parts of the borough who we are in contact with.”

A government spokesperson said: “Over 90% of those known to be living on the streets at the start of the crisis have been offered safe accommodation – ensuring some of the most vulnerable people can stay safe during the pandemic. This remarkable achievement is the result of a collaborative effort across government and with local authorities, health providers and charities.

“This is backed by £3.2bn of government funding for local authorities as part of the wider government response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Stop denying help to people who do not have a local connection to public funds (NRPF).

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The group of charities, which includes Crisis and Homeless Link, said they have heard repeated examples of councils denying help to people who do not have a local connection to the area or who have no recourse to public funds (NRPF).

This is despite a letter which was sent to councils last week by minister for homelessness Luke Hall, which ordered them to find accommodation for all rough sleepers during the coronavirus crisis, including those with NRPF.

Charities warn ‘second wave’ of homeless people will need accommodation during coronavirus crisis

An individual with NRPF is someone who is not eligible for government support due to their immigration status.

Since last week, councils across the UK have been block-booking hotels in order to house people who are sleeping on the street or in shelters.

In their letter, the charities said that significant progress has been made, but said “far too many people are still rough sleeping or staying in dangerous communal night shelters”.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “We commend the government’s swift action to protect people most at risk by ensuring they have somewhere safe to stay during the pandemic.

“But the stark fact remains that there are people whose lives are still in danger, sleeping on our streets or trapped in crowded hostels and night shelters.

“To fulfil the ambition of getting ‘everyone in’ we must see the final barriers stopping people from getting the help they need removed”.

“This means ensuring councils have the money they need to support people into hotel accommodation and a clear message that anyone, no matter who they are or their circumstance, will get the help they need to shelter from the pandemic.”

“We must also ensure that once people have been accommodated they get access to the health care they need if they are affected by the virus, and in the long term are supported into safe, permanent housing once this crisis is over.”

Homelessness charities have written to the government

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Urging the removal of the remaining barriers preventing people who are homeless from getting access to the self-contained accommodation they need. Crisis, Homeless Link, and The Passage say too many people remain on the street or stuck in hostels and night shelters.

Last Thursday, in an unprecedented move, the government wrote to all local authorities in England asking them to house all people sleeping rough, and those in hostels and night shelters, by last weekend.

While significant progress has been made in supporting people into hotel rooms, far too many people are still rough sleeping or staying in dangerous communal night shelters.

The charities state that over the course of the week, they have heard repeated examples of councils denying help to people on the basis of them not having a local connection to the area or that they have no recourse to public funds – meaning they are not eligible for government assistance.

As this remains a public health emergency, the charities warn that failure to act could risk putting more lives in danger.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “We commend the government’s swift action to protect people most at risk by ensuring they have somewhere safe to stay during the pandemic.

“But the stark fact remains that there are people whose lives are still in danger, sleeping on our streets or trapped in crowded hostels and night shelters.

“To fulfil the ambition of getting ‘everyone in’ we must see the final barriers stopping people from getting the help they need removed.

“This means ensuring councils have the money they need to support people into hotel accommodation and a clear message that anyone, no matter who they are or their circumstance, will get the help they need to shelter from the pandemic.

“We must also ensure that once people have been accommodated they get access to the health care they need if they are affected by the virus, and in the long term are supported into safe, permanent housing once this crisis is over.”

Thousands of rough sleepers still unhoused in England, say charities

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Councils call for more funds in order to meet government request for emergency shelter

Thousands of rough sleepers in England are thought to remain unhoused despite an unprecedented government request to local authorities to find housing for those on the streets by Sunday evening to avert the spread of Covid-19.

After the unfunded request from the government last week, which also called for the closure of night shelters and street encampments, homelessness charities questioned whether fulfilling it would be feasible. But on Monday, charities were keen to stress that considerable progress had been made in a short space of time, with the national homelessness charity Crisis estimating that about 4,200 had been rehoused in England within a few weeks.

“It shows what you can do with money and organisation and an assertive approach from government,” Matthew Downie, director of policy at Crisis said.

Birmingham city council had worked with a Holiday Inn in the centre of the city to accommodate more than 250 rough sleepers or residents of night shelters, he said, and hotel staff and charity workers were bringing people three meals a day to their rooms to allow them to isolate. Liverpool council has paid for more than 50 people to move into a newly built, unopened hotel.

Officials are concerned about the risk of transmission between people living on the streets, congregating in day shelters, and also about those who live in shelters with communal sleeping, eating and washing areas.

“There shouldn’t be too much self-congratulation about this. There are people still on the streets, and many people who won’t have eaten for days,” said Downie. “But we should recognise that it has taken a global pandemic to sort out an absolutely solvable problem; it is possible to get thousands of people off the streets and out of night shelters in the space of a week.”

Meanwile, charities dealing primarily with people who have an uncertain immigration status said they were worried that not enough support was being offered. People who have a “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) status – which is given to some asylum seekers, or people who have a limited immigration status – are not normally eligible for support from homelessness charities that rely on government funding. The question of how rehousing these people can be funded remains unresolved.

“It’s clear that NRPF conditions from the Home Office are prohibiting local authorities from supporting an extremely vulnerable groups of people,” a spokesperson for Naccom, a charity helping destitute migrants, said.

The Glass Door Homeless Charity said it had been contacted by many people who still needed urgent rehousing. “We have had one case of someone sleeping rough who has been told they must reconnect to their home country rather than being offered accommodation,” Neil Parkinson, a senior caseworker, said.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, wrote to the prime minister on Monday asking him to suspend the NRPF status. “Across London, there are tens of thousands of residents with NRPF, including delivery drivers, cleaners and NHS staff. Londoners with NRPF are at real risk of homelessness,” he said.

About 60 people were still sleeping in Terminal 5 at Heathrow on Monday night, according to Paul Atherton, a film-maker who has been homeless for a number of years and who is currently sleeping at the airport. He said he had not been given any support from outreach workers or from local councils.

The Local Government Association said councils needed more central government funding to complete the task. “Some councils continue to face challenges securing accommodation, not helped by the recent closures of hotels and caravan parks, and some insurance policies which may limit the ability of some hotel owners to take part in housing rough sleepers.

We are calling on the government to increase support to those councils that are struggling to source accommodation, hire additional staff, and support the people they are accommodating – including with essential basics such as food.”

Figures for the total number of rough sleepers and homeless people in England are unreliable, but Crisis estimates that there are thousands more people still in night shelters, lying next to each other on church hall floors or still living in hostels where they have to access shared space to cook or wash.

“The real test isn’t how quickly we get people off the streets, but how permanently we can keep them off afterwards,” Downie said.

The Home Office, which is responsible for regulations around which non-UK citizens have access to public funds, said: “Nobody should find themselves starving or destitute. Measures we have brought forward such as rent and mortgage protections and food vouchers are not considered public funds and can be accessed by migrants with leave to remain.”

But charities remained concerned about the situation for people who do not have the formal “leave to remain” immigration status.

Universal Credit’s five-week wait continues to be a source of difficulty for anyone wanting to claim support amid the coronavirus crisis

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Universal Credit’s five-week wait continues to be a source of difficulty for anyone wanting to claim support amid the coronavirus crisis, writes Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood.

This week we have seen posts from people showing they were over number 100,000 in the queue to have their ID verified as they tried to claim Universal Credit.

There were stories of people waiting online into the night, only to wake up the next morning to find that they had lost their place in the queue.

With unprecedented numbers of people needing to access support, the government must get help to people quickly.

The pressure on the system is likely to continue. While the announcement of new support for the self-employed is welcome, there will be those who don’t qualify and others who can’t manage two months without income while they wait for the new scheme to kick in.

The long waits to verify identity may have hit the headlines, but the problems with the system are long-standing.

Last year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published a damning report on Verify, the Government’s online verification tool, calling it ‘an onerous system that is not fit for purpose’. It begs the question, why has the government failed to sort out its verification processes?​​​​

It appears that DWP is attempting to verify the identities of people by telephone where they had not been able to do so online, but the volume of inbound calls being dealt with by DWP staff will have soared in the current crisis too.

While current numbers are exceptional, again this is not a new problem: last year staff at call centres in Wolverhampton and Walsall went on strike over working conditions.

Amongst their demands were that the government should recruit 5,000 new staff and limit the number of phone calls per case manager. It emerged last week that the government is redeploying staff from other areas of the DWP to deal with the increase in demand. In so doing, it must make sure that all staff are able to work in a safe environment, both in terms of being given manageable workloads and being able to practise social distancing.

The five-week wait continues to be a source of difficulty for anyone wanting to claim support. The government says that anyone who wants an advance can get one, but of course, it is a loan that needs to be paid back, and people cannot receive it until their identity has been verified.

Rather than providing advances, the government should be giving non-repayable grants, as a number of leading voluntary organisations have been calling for.

The Government says it doesn’t have the technical capacity to do that or to stop taking the deductions from Universal Credit for debt, although it finds itself able to take deductions for Tax Credit debt.

If that is the case, the Government should discuss the possibility of introducing repayment holidays for energy bills with the energy companies. It should also ban evictions and suspend rental payments beyond the crisis, as Labour has been calling for.

April will finally see the end of the Conservative’s four-year freeze on benefits; it has been a critical driver of increased poverty and has left a shameful legacy of hardship. Disabled people and the poor have been hit the hardest by austerity measures. Still, there has been no increase in other benefits to support disabled people, carers or people who are unemployed. Now more than ever, we need to build resilience in all of our communities. The government should do the right thing and increase support for them too.

Margaret Greenwood is the Labour MP for Wirral West and the shadow work and pensions secretary.

Hostels like living in ‘petri dishes’ as temporary housing hit by coronavirus

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People living in temporary accommodation are facing an “unprecedented crisis’, charities warn

Hundreds of children in Merseyside who are currently in temporary accommodation face living in “petri dishes” due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As the coronavirus crisis worsens, hostels for homeless people are looking at an “unprecedented crisis” in trying to house people.

This could mean some of the most vulnerable members of society are unable to self-isolate, should they develop symptoms.

Latest figures available, from September 2019, show there were 460 families, including 366 children, being housed in temporary accommodation in Merseyside.

Fears grow for Liverpool’s homeless amid coronavirus pandemic

The number includes those being housed in B&Bs, hostels and other emergency housing – often with one family in a single room, sharing bathrooms and kitchens with other residents.

The 460 families living in emergency housing in Merseyside as of September 2019 is up from 311 the year before.

Nationally, there were 87,410 families living in temporary accommodation in September – up from 83,430.

The number includes 127,890 children, most of whom will not be able to go to school.

The government has offered £3.2 million in emergency support for rough sleepers during the outbreak, and homelessness hostel workers are now designated as key workers.

This means their children will continue to be cared for at school during the pandemic, and they will have access to public transport in the event of a full lockdown.

However, charities are expressing huge concerns that no extra cash has been offered to help people in temporary accommodation self-isolate should they need to.

Seyi Obakin, chief executive of youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, said: “We are facing an unprecedented homelessness crisis in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Caterer out of a job delivers meals to people isolated because of coronavirus

“The government has acted swiftly to provide measures for rough sleepers but has done nothing to support the thousands of people who live in hostel accommodation.

“Without urgent action the government risks turning homelessness hostels into petri dishes. This will leave some of the country’s most vulnerable people unable to follow the government’s own guidelines and self-isolate.”

Shelter have also called on the government to introduce emergency measures to help safeguard homeless families in shared and one-room temporary accommodation.

Polly Neate, chief executive at Shelter, said: “Thousands of families with children are in this situation, living in cramped emergency B&Bs and hostels.

“It can be more difficult for them to follow NHS isolation guidance when they are sharing kitchens and bathrooms with strangers, living in a single room or even sharing a bed.

“And we don’t know how children will cope being stuck in these conditions when schools close.

Britannia Hotels blames brutal coronavirus sackings on ‘admin error’

“We need to protect families already experiencing the trauma of homelessness from greater risk of coronavirus.

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Coronavirus: The rough sleepers who can’t self-isolate

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For more than 35 years, The People’s Kitchen in Newcastle has opened its doors to rough sleepers and vulnerable people.

Based in a former church, tables for up to 120 diners sit in-between floor-to-ceiling beams, with a professional kitchen at the back – once the heartbeat of the operation. But today it is all empty.

Instead, the charity’s dedicated volunteers serve hot soup, sandwiches, cakes and pastries from tables in the car park. In the evening, it is hot food from a catering van.

This has become the new reality as coronavirus cases rise across the UK, in an attempt to keep supplying food to the neediest while minimising the risk of spread.

Many soup kitchens in the local area – particularly church-run ones – have already closed.

The People’s Kitchen estimates it has lost up to 30% of its volunteer workforce, with all those over the age of 70 reluctantly asked to stay home.
One woman, Sophie – who says she spends her nights sleeping rough in a shop doorway – describes the service as her lifeline.

“I’m really scared,” she says. “Not many hostels are taking people in because of the virus, and I’ve got nowhere to stay this evening. No family I can turn to.

“I’d love to be put somewhere, anywhere – even a derelict building.
“If this place [The People’s Kitchen] gets closed down, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Sophie has been given baby wipes by the volunteers to help keep herself clean during the day, and is able to shower there too – although the service is limited amid increased cleaning.

She is being regularly supported by the charity’s welfare team, but says the outbreak is taking a toll on her mental health.

“I’m low to start with, and this is making it worse. I can’t sleep at the moment.

“The doctor has given me anti-depressants, but I don’t know what I’d do if the chemist was shut.”

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Third of homeless people seeking help from councils left on the streets

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Charities urge Chancellor to use Wednesday’s Budget to end homelessness, with councils lacking enough available affordable housing

More than a third of homeless people who approached their councils for help either ended up back on the streets or became rough sleepers, new research has revealed.

According to a new report from the homelessness charity, Crisis, 38% of people who approached their local authority for help either remained homeless or became homeless because councils do not have enough available affordable housing.

The report, based on 984 surveys and 89 in-depth interviews with people experiencing homelessness, provides the first real insight into how the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) is working in practice since it was introduced two years ago.

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