Today the National Audit Office (NAO) reports that through its ‘Everyone In’ campaign, the Ministry of Communities, Housing and Local Government (the Department) swiftly provided emergency housing for rough sleepers during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the response raised issues that need to be addressed if government is to achieve its goal of ending rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament.
Rough sleepers typically experience poorer health than the rest of the population and are especially vulnerable to respiratory illnesses. Those at risk of rough sleeping may also occasionally sleep in communal shelters, where they cannot self-isolate if they have symptoms of COVID-19.
On 26 March 2020, the Department launched its ‘Everyone In’ campaign, asking local authorities to immediately house rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping to protect their health and stop wider transmission of COVID-19. Local authorities expect to spend around £170 million this financial year rehousing rough sleepers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, paid for by a combination of emergency government grants, existing homelessness funding streams, and their own resources.
The Department swiftly reorganised to launch Everyone In, despite not having a contingency plan for protecting the rough sleeping population in the event of a pandemic. It adopted a hands-on approach to work intensively with local authorities, homelessness charities and hotel chains. By mid-April 2020, 5,400 people had been made an offer of emergency accommodation and by the end of November, over 33,000 people had been helped through Everyone In. A total of 23,273 people had been supported to move into the private rental sector or another form of settled accommodation, and 9,866 people remained inhotels and other emergency accommodation.
COVID-19 claimed relatively few lives among the rough sleeping population in England in the first wave. Up to June 2020,1 16 deaths among homeless people had been linked to COVID-19. Evidence suggests that Everyone In may have avoided more than 20,000 infections and 266 deaths overall.2
The number of people accommodated under Everyone In over several months far exceeded the number of people recorded as rough sleeping in the government’s annual national ‘snapshot’ of the rough sleeping population. In the autumn of 2019, this snapshot estimated that there were 4,266 people sleeping rough on any given night, compared to the over 33,000 people who were helped by Everyone In.
In May 2020, the Department announced that it was moving to the next phase of the government’s support for rough sleepers during the pandemic. When Everyone In was first launched, the Department encouraged local authorities to take all those sleeping rough into emergency accommodation, irrespective of their nationality or entitlement to benefits. On 28 May, it reminded local authorities that legal restrictions on offering support to people ineligible for benefits remained in force, and that exceptions should only be made in the case of risk to life. Some local authorities stopped taking those who were ineligible for benefits into emergency accommodation and sought to move on those already in such accommodation.
There was a continued flow of rough sleepers onto the streets over the summer and autumn of 2020. For winter 2020-21, the government has launched the Protect Programme, which will run alongside Everyone In and will provide additional funding of £15 million to local authorities with high numbers of rough sleepers. In addition, the Department has announced £12 million of funding to provide self-contained emergency accommodation, and to help make night shelters safer to use.
In January 2021, the Department announced that it was making an extra £10 million available to support local authorities to provide accommodation to people still sleeping rough. It remains to be seen if the approach taken in winter 2020-21 will reduce the risk of the transmission of COVID-19 among rough sleepers as decisively as in spring 2020.
The government has an election manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by May 2024. In February 2020, the Department was preparing to carry out a review of its Rough Sleeping Strategy in light of the new target, but due to the prioritisation given to Everyone In, this did not take place. There is an ongoing need for a review of the strategy as it is out of step with the government’s target to end rough sleeping by 2024, and there are important lessons from Everyone In to consider.