Campaigners want empty commercial buildings to become makeshift shelters this winter as social distancing severely impacts the number of beds available for the expected “tsunami” of homelessness.
Outreach teams are predicting a sharp rise in the number of people sleeping rough due to a perfect storm of factors caused or exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic – not least, the end of both the eviction ban and the furlough scheme. And with more space needed for Covid-secure shelters, innovative measures are being put forward to tackle the crisis, such as taking advantage of the empty office blocks and commercial buildings in town and city centres across the country.
Jon Glackin, founder of outreach group Streets Kitchen, told HuffPost UK: “We’re going to have to start thinking about unorthodox methods. There are lots of empty buildings that could be re-appropriated and put to good use – that’s the simple answer.” Glackin is no stranger to this. Two years ago Streets Kitchen took over an empty building in north London for use as a winter shelter
The economic toll of the pandemic, and the social distancing measures in place to tackle it, mean already stretched shelters will likely see more people asking for help, but be severely limited in how many they can take in. Lucy Abraham, CEO of Glass Door Homeless Charity, told HuffPost UK: “The current advice is that accommodation with communal airspaces is not allowed because of the risk of the spread of Covid. So that means any shared night shelters, dormitory-style accommodation can’t operate under current government advice guidelines. Our normal service would be five night shelters on any one night of the winter, operating across London and we would normally accommodate 170 people every night. So our challenge now is what do we provide to people? And that’s not just us – there are thousands of night shelter places across the country.”
The government’s Everyone In scheme, launched in March, housed almost 15,000 in emergency accommodation such as hotels and was hailed as a successful – albeit temporary – programme. ″[The Everyone In scheme] definitely made a big impact, no doubt about it, but you have to remember that homelessness is only increasing,” says Glackin. “There’s illegal evictions; we’ve had all the backpackers’ hostels closed during the pandemic; the hotels closed down and B&Bs, even sofa-surfers, [were] being kicked out – so there was always an increase in homelessness which we were seeing from day one but it’s only just being recognised now. And then you’ve got the eviction ban lifting. We’re going to see a tsunami.”
According to the latest figures from the Greater London Authority (GLA), sleeping rough in London increased 33% year-on-year between April and June, while the number of new rough sleepers rose by 77%. A government source suggested the rise was due to the increased reporting of people on the street so they could be housed, with most only spending one night sleeping rough. The number of people deemed to be “living on the street” was down 33%.
But there is also a larger problem on the horizon than the number of people already homeless or rough sleeping. The furlough scheme, which has frozen nearly 10m pre-Covid jobs, and the eviction ban will expire in the coming weeks. Both will almost certainly result in a huge rise in unemployment – which could in turn lead to a rise in people being forced onto the streets.
“The big question is: what about the new rough sleepers?” says Abraham.
“We know the demand is going to be there this winter. We’re already seeing people who are losing their jobs because of Covid. I strongly believe that the economic impact of Covid at the moment is just being kicked down the road.”