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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.”

One third of British households said they were likely to need government support

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LONDON (Reuters) – One third of British households said they were likely to need government support within the next three months to weather the coronavirus outbreak, according to a survey that reveals growing pessimism about job security and the health of the economy.

Research firm Kantar said 44% of those working believed their job was less safe than it was 12 months ago, the highest recorded measure since it began the survey in August 2011.

Confidence in the health of the British economy had also slumped since the country was put into effective lockdown in March, with 65% of people stating the economy was doing worse than 12 months ago, Kantar said on Wednesday.

Britain’s budget forecaster has said economic output could plunge by 35% in the April-June period and 2 million people could lose their jobs due to the impact of the virus.

The government has launched an economic rescue package totalling more than half a trillion dollars that includes paying up to 80% of salary costs to minimise redundancies and guaranteeing up to 80% of bank loans to small businesses.

The public widely supported intervention, the survey found, with 84% of people either agreeing or strongly agreeing that the government should help people and business affected by coronavirus, whatever the cost.

Six in 10 people said the government was handling the coronavirus crisis fairly or very well, helping boost support for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives to 54%, up 4 percentage points since March, while three in 10 said it was handling it fairly or very poorly.

Craig Watkins, UK chief executive of Kantar’s Public division, said: “These findings show that there is a growing majority who believe the government is handling the crisis well and a strong public belief that supporting people and business during this time should be a priority, no matter the cost.”

Kantar interviewed 1,118 adults online between April 16 and April 20 for the survey.

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.

Overcrowding in government accommodation

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Asylum seekers are being made to share cramped rooms and even beds with strangers in breach of strict measures to contain coronavirus, charities have warned.

Overcrowding in government accommodation has led to new people being brought into shared rooms in hostels since the UK-wide lockdown began last month, according to Refugee Action, Asylum Matters and the Scottish Refugee Council.

The charities said that although the Home Office had stopped evictions from its asylum accommodation for three months because of Covid-19, there was insufficient capacity to safely house the growth in the asylum seeker population.

They added that the crisis would increase because up to 50,000 more people need to be accommodated due to the decision to allow people whose asylum claim or appeal has been rejected, as well as those granted refugee status, to stay put.

Their concern comes after it emerged that the high court ordered the home secretary, Periti Patel, to rehouse a man who developed Covid-19 symptoms after another symptomatic asylum seeker was put in his room. The man, referred to as AQS in the judgment issued last week, was evicted last month for property damage after he became angry with the situation. After sleeping rough, he was taken in by a friend who subsequently developed “symptoms of a high fever”.

A witness statement from Refugee Action’s London asylum service manager in another legal case this month said people were being deterred “from applying for asylum support for fear that they will have to share a room and put themselves at risk should they contract Covid-19”.

An asylum seeker in a south London hostel said that since the lockdown two strangers had shared the only double bed in his room for a week.

He said there had been four people in the room – a video seen by the Guardian shows three beds a few inches apart – but two of them left last week and a new person moved in.

Simon (not his real name) said: “They tell you to sleep in the double bed with other people. Every three or four days new people come in. I am very scared. You are not in a safe place.”

The man, who has latent tuberculosis, said another occupant of the hostel had been taken to hospital with coronavirus symptoms.

A woman in different temporary asylum accommodation in London described her fear about sharing a double room with three strangers. Mary (not her real name), who is HIV positive, said people had regularly arrived at the hostel since the lockdown began.

“Last night there was someone sneezing and there is a lot of tension in the house,” she said. “I have flu [symptoms]. I am feeling scared.”

The judgment in the case of AQS shows his eviction came after another man was moved into his shared room who had “a persistent cough and night sweats”. The man left the next day but AQS developed “symptoms of a high fever and a persistent cough”.

Although AQS, who has mental health problems, was offered a single room, he became angry and was kicked out after an incident with the manager. Following judicial review, he was rehoused in “a facility operated specifically for those entitled to asylum accommodation with symptoms of Covid-19”.

The migration lawyer Simon Cox of Doughty Street Chambers, who represented AQS, said as far as he was aware this accommodation in London was the only dedicated housing for symptomatic asylum seekers in the UK.

He said: “Another of my homeless clients was asked to share a room with five other men on Friday [3 April]. The Home Office should be urgently sourcing extra accommodation, not crowding people into existing rooms. That’s a recipe for transmission.”

Stephen Hale, the chief executive of Refugee Action, said it was impossible for many asylum seekers to practise physical distancing and self-isolation. He added: “Overcrowding in poor accommodation and delays in providing even paltry levels of support have always been rife but now these problems are putting lives at risk.”

Sabir Zazai, the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said it was hearing daily from asylum seekers in Glasgow fearful of sharing accommodation with strangers.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Asylum accommodation providers are following public health guidance and are providing additional accommodation for individuals with symptoms who need to self-isolate.”

Families borrowing to buy food a week into UK lockdown

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Food Foundation warns of crisis as YouGov poll reports 1.5m people worrying about hunger

Millions of British people are already struggling to get the food they need and are falling into debt because of the coronavirus pandemic, a survey carried out this week suggests.

The Food Foundation, which commissioned the YouGov poll, said the outbreak would lead rapidly to a hunger crisis unless the government acted immediately to get food aid and money to the most vulnerable and isolated people.

More than 1.5 million adults in Britain say they cannot obtain enough food. Half of the YouGov poll sample reported that they were self-isolating, and 53% of NHS workers were worried about getting food.

Half of parents on low incomes with children eligible for free school meals said they had not yet received any substitute meals to keep their children fed, despite government promises to provide food vouchers or parcels. Around 830,000 children are therefore likely to be going without daily sustenance.

Of those surveyed, 12% – representative of 6.1 million adults – said they were struggling to follow the government order to stay at home because they had to keep earning to survive.

The scale of financial and food insecurity is revealed by the numbers reporting that they had already had to borrow money to survive, just a week into the lockdown. Of those surveyed, 6% had taken out personal loans. Households with children were two and a half times more likely to have borrowed than those without.

On 21 March the government instructed people at greater risk of Covid-19 to stay in their homes and self-isolate for 12 weeks. It said it would contact 1.5 million people in this category and set up a system with local authorities, voluntary organisations and business to deliver food parcels to the homes of those who lacked family support.

Military planners have been assigned to work with councils, but the Guardian understands that the scheme is not yet running and will take a few weeks to scale up to supplying food to 400,000 people. The Food Foundation has calculated that more than twice that number – 860,000 people who fall into the medically vulnerable category – were suffering from food insecurity even before the crisis.

Anna Taylor, director of the Food Foundation, said the problem could not be solved by the voluntary sector alone and called on the government to coordinate emergency food aid immediately. “Our poll results suggest people are already going hungry. There are at least five government departments which have responsibility for aspects of the food response,” she said.

“We need a food aid task force, led by a single minister, to conduct a comprehensive assessment of need and coordinate across government, with local authorities, businesses and charities to deliver the right package of food and financial assistance. We cannot afford to delay.”

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is responsible for overseeing emergency planning around food; the Department for Education is responsible for action on free school meals; the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is negotiating with the food industry over supplies to food banks; and the Department for Work and Pensions has responsibility for getting money through universal credit to those who have lost work and cannot afford to eat.

Domestic abuse was bound to rise during the coronavirus crisis.

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Ministers must quickly start to put out public health advice to tackle the rising number of incidents.

“The incidences of call outs for domestic abuse are going up.” These were the words said to me by West Midlands Police on this morning’s weekly multi-agency conference call.

I knew it would happen. Isolation at home, the closing of schools, the inability to escape to work, the tension of people thrown together. How could domestic abuse not increase? It was inevitable.

Evidence from China shows a threefold increase in call outs during the period of isolation to domestic abuse services. Bear in mind already before Covid-19, 60% of women and children in England and Wales who presented needing a space in refuge were turned away. How on earth will they cope with a possible three-fold increase? Many of us in the sector are working on freeing up hotels for this purpose, but we have no idea if it will be enough.

It is not just the need for safe refuge beds that throws up concerns for those of us trying to support victims of domestic abuse. Already I have seen cases of perpetrators weaponizing the rules on quarantine timeframes to breach their contact orders.

Non abusive parents, usually the mother, told by the family courts that their children must see both parents, unsure of how the courts will react if they don’t allow their children to attend contact because they are self-isolating. The Government departments have had a lot on, but the guidance has been woeful to anyone outside of just a regularised 2.4 children happy household.

Charities dealing with this crisis have had to really shout to be heard, and myself and other colleagues had to push for domestic and sexual abuse support workers to be included in the list of key workers. While we won that war, the Government still have not updated the guidance and so many domestic abuse staff – vital in keeping people safe – have been left begging to have their children be able to go to school.

For some, they will lose their lives not at the hands of a silent virus but instead at the hands of their family.

For all in the charity sector this crisis could not have come at a worse time. Not just because of depleting resources over years, but because it is going to cross over the financial year. For so many charities, especially small domestic abuse providers, this crisis is happening while they don’t know if they have the money from local councils, government departments and other funders after early April. This happens every year as charities live hand to mouth but now it means that a vital lifeline is in danger.

In Scotland they appear to have taken much quicker and decisive action in giving out funds to voluntary sector groups vital in the fightback, but in England many refuge and community support providers have no idea how they are going to fund the regular services, let alone an increase. The Government could easily solve this today, but instead I am left putting out pleas for crowdfunding, such as for a brilliant local refuge in Coventry which has saved the lives of many women. I have heard of some councils still expecting charities to be bidding for contracts for their service throughout this time of crisis – this is simply unacceptable.

The Government must quickly start to put out public health advice to prevent domestic abuse. We cannot stop those already perpetrating this brutal crime; but I have absolutely no doubt that for some this period of isolation – the economic stress, the children permanently under your feet – will lead some to perpetrate their first instance of domestic abuse. As much as we need to talk about how we ensure people keep good mental health in a time of isolation we need the government, broadcasters, and media outlets giving people strategies of de-escalation.

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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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