‘Perfect Storm’ Puts Liverpool Rough Sleepers At Risk

Over the past 18 months, something remarkable happened in cities like Liverpool, writes Liam Thorp for the Liverpool Echo.

For a sustained period, when walking around the city centre, you would struggle to see anyone sleeping rough. No sleeping bags, hardly any makeshift beds. The pandemic spread untold pain and misery in cities like this one, but on certain issues – like homelessness and rough sleeping – it appeared to galvanise a movement and a strategy that had been lacking for so long and engineered some seriously impressive results.

In late March 2020, the government asked local councils across England to “help make sure we get everyone in”, including those who would not normally be entitled to assistance under homelessness legislation. Emergency funding was deployed and local authorities raced to ensure that those who were sleeping rough were placed in safe, secure accommodation. They block booked hotels, secured en-suite apartments, took over student halls and found rooms in bed and breakfasts.

These, of course, were exceptional circumstances but almost overnight the rough sleeping crisis in cities like Liverpool was on the way to being solved. A government taskforce was launched, spearheaded by Dame Louise Casey, that worked with local authorities to try and ensure that those who had been taken off the streets during the Everyone In project could be placed in longer-term accommodation and not return to the city streets. In Liverpool an allocations panel was set up which matched people with permanent homes, moving people and families quickly from temporary accommodation into long-term housing.

The results were extraordinary – Everyone In saw 1,800 people accommodated. The subsequent allocations panel ended homelessness for 934 households in Liverpool, with a further 100 matched to new accommodation. The government says it is looking to follow on from the success of Everyone In, but the emergency funding has ended and those working in the sector in Liverpool have said they are seeing the numbers of people now returning to the streets rising again – at the worst possible time.

Charities have described a ‘perfect storm’ made up of the end of that funding, the winter weather arriving and other factors like the removal of the Universal Credit uplift fusing together to create a very dangerous moment for some very vulnerable people in the city. Liverpool Council closed its emergency night shelter, Labre House, during the pandemic and it will not reopen.

The authority has just launched a consultation on its new homelessness and rough sleeping strategy, informed by Everyone In, called the Liverpool Ladder. The strategy will look to move away from the well-intentioned, but sometimes chaotic nature of things at Labre House and towards services that lead more quickly to secure housing and accommodation, with a dedicated street outreach team and a city centre hub to help people get on that ladder. This all sounds very positive, but it will take time and what is happening right now remains a key concern for those working in the area.

David Carter, chief executive of the Whitechapel Centre, said: “The pandemic was horrendous, but it did galvanize change. All these different groups, councils, social housing providers, charities like us came together, all free properties that came up went to homeless people. When you look at the numbers, it was massive. It was the biggest sea change in my time working in this sector. It broke down barriers of exclusion. Everyone In meant that people started with good quality, furnished accommodation but then they had the ability to quickly move on to more long-term accommodation, they weren’t stuck there, it was a pathway out. People were being treated with and living with dignity and they were motivated to change and move forward. The whole thing came together.”

He added: “We’re now in an interim period and the danger, from our perspective, is that we return to what was there before. Labre House won’t reopen but we do need an alternative that offers pathways off the street and into long-term accommodation. Homelessness isn’t a need, its a symptom of not having what you need, whether that’s housing or support services, you need to change those bits and stop people falling into it. One of the things the pandemic has shown is that money does make a big difference, if it’s spent in the right areas and targeted in the right way.”

Mr Carter said that during the pandemic his outreach teams would only be seeing one or two rough sleepers in the city centre – unfortunately in recent weeks that number has risen to between 15 and 20. He added: “We’re in a transition, the pandemic isn’t over. It’s a state of flux. There is an intention and a will to change things for the better locally – but there is a potential gap there right now. Everyone In ended, but the alternatives weren’t there at the right time – and now we are in winter, a crunch moment and that is a worry.”

“We believe the funding should continue in the way it was during the pandemic, because there are more problems to come in terms of mental health issues, Universal Credit cuts and the return of evictions. We need a long term strategy and a long term commitment to funding and that will make the change we need.”

Someone else who saw the impacts of the Everyone In drive first hand was Michelle Langan, who runs the Papercup Project that works to support rough sleepers on the streets of Liverpool. She said: “During the pandemic when we were going out, there were usually four or five people sleeping rough in the city centre. They were entrenched rough sleepers who didn’t want to engage with services. Our charity managed to find and fund accommodation for one of them. But obviously walking around town there was hardly anyone sleeping rough and we hadn’t seen anything like that in Liverpool for a long time.”

“But over the past couple of months, we have seen those numbers rising again and more people who are newly homeless. Over the past couple of weeks people who were being put up at apartments in the city are back on the streets because that funding has finished. We know the council and housing associations are under lots of pressure with funding cuts and the end of the evictions ban. It feels like there is a perfect storm happening right now and we are definitely seeing more people on the streets again.”

Ms Langan agreed with Mr Carter that what happened during the pandemic was the most transformational change she has ever seen when it comes to tackling rough sleeping and homelessness. She said: “It was unbelievable. I never thought I would be able to walk around town and not see any sleeping bags. They found a way to fix it and it is all about money. Now they are saying they will put some other funding towards it, but it won’t be forever, and that doesn’t work as a long-term strategy. It doesn’t make financial sense either because it means people keep needing those services. One of the long-term homeless men who is now back on the streets has now been in hospital for the past three weeks with an injury picked up on the streets – that’s not good for anyone is it? Its putting pressure on other services too.”

Ms Langan, who has given evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group on homelessness, said she fears that with Covid cases rising and the winter weather set to bite, homeless people in Liverpool will be in real danger. She said: “It’s really hard for us to see, because the way it is ending is as we go into winter, with covid, flu, other conditions, with restrictions lifted. And people are back on the streets and extremely vulnerable to these things, it’s really frightening. I think without a doubt we will see deaths on the streets. In a normal year we see deaths on the streets, now we have these viruses circulating, it’s really worrying.”

Responding to the concerns, a spokesperson for Liverpool City Council said: “Since the end of the summer, the city has returned to its Always Help Available approach, as providers who supported our pandemic response, such as hotels, have returned to their normal business. This means that anyone who is rough sleeping can rely on the council and its partners to support them to come off of the streets initially into temporary accommodation. The council responded to the government’s ‘Everyone In’ response to rough sleeping by leasing a range of apart hotels, and other Covid secure amenities, including those with 24-hour support staff. Through this approach we accommodated over 2,200 single people and there were very low levels of Covid outbreaks, which demonstrates the effectiveness of the model.”

“However, reducing homelessness demands far more complex solutions than moving people into temporary accommodation. When we are supporting people we are committed to ending their homelessness permanently. A key part of the our new Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Strategy 2021-26, which is currently out to consultation, is the continuing need for immediate access to support and accommodation.”

“We’ve looked at a range of options that can provide a ‘First Step from the Street’ solution and this approach started in September. We now have two sites and both are staffed 24 hours, seven days a week. However, we remain concerned about the onset of winter and we are looking into opportunities to provide additional units of emergency accommodation to prevent anyone rough sleeping in our city. Alongside this, we will be further developing and expanding the interventions being delivered by outreach teams to people engaged in a street-based lifestyle. This includes faster access to treatment, rehab and mental health support through our new ‘Pathways’ team which will be offering intensive treatment to people who misuse drugs and alcohol.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: ““Everyone In protected thousands of rough sleepers throughout the pandemic with 26,000 moved to long-term accommodation. We are building on that success and the 37% reduction in rough sleeping by investing £750m to tackle the issue.”