COVID-19 and homelessness: actions for Government
Homelessness services across England have already demonstrated remarkable innovation and resilience in their rapid response to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and protecting the people they support.
However, our sector is struggling and is in danger of collapse. Some vital services have already had to close their doors.
People experiencing homelessness are among the most vulnerable in our communities to contracting life-threatening COVID-19. Government must step up now to protect them by taking the urgent actions below.
These demands echo those issued by accomodation providers and other major homelessness charities in recent days. We support their calls and stand ready to support local and national government as this unprecedented crisis develops.
1. Protect and support people experiencing homelessness
1.1 Remove legal barriers to accessing self-contained accommodation for people facing homelessness. Legal conditions on assistance are preventing the implementation of public health advice. Government should suspend all legal barriers in place, including, as a priority, a suspension of no recourse to public funds conditions and fund local authrorities accordingly. Any local authority data-sharing with the Home Office for the purpose of immigration enforcement should also be suspended. With current global travel restrictions, this is vital to ensure that everyone can access the support they need to keep them and all our communities safe.
1.2 Increase access to self-contained accommodation so that people facing homelessness can self-isolate. We welcome plans for hotels to make accommodation available to homelessness services. National coordination is needed to implement these plans and extra provision must be made available for appropriate floating support.
Government should also work with local authorities and housing providers to repurpose unused accommodation, such as obsolete sheltered housing and keyworker schemes, and consider legislative options for bringing empty homes into use.
1.3 Ensure that homeless people most at risk have rapid access to testing. Commissioned outreach teams should engage in active case finding on the streets and in hostel and night shelter accommodation. People presenting to homelessness services should be immediately triaged based on testing.
2. Enable homelessness services to operate effectively and respond safely
2.1 Urgently provide PPE, hygiene supplies and testing. Our members have reported shortages of masks, hand sanitiser, toilet paper, disposable thermometer tips, over-the-counter painkillers and cleaning products. In the absence of community testing, homelessness workers should be prioritised alongside NHS workers and others working to support the most vulnerable.
2.2 Offer an emergency grant fund for homelessness services. As fundraising income dries up, frontline homelessness services’ incomes will plummet. A rapid and flexible emergency grant fund is required to support homelessness organisations to adapt, reorganise and respond effectively to the demands placed on them.
2.3 Provide bloc payments of Housing Benefit to accommodation providers in advance, rather than requiring monthly returns. Making three-month bloc payments of Housing Benefit in advance would support the financial viability of critical homelessness services and enable the reduced workforce to prioritise their response to COVID-19 over administrative tasks.
3. Prevent further homelessness as a result of COVID-19
3.1 Provide Universal Credit advance payments on a grant basis. During the five week wait for UC, advances should be given as a grant, not a loan, to relieve claimants of an immediate debt burden and risk of homelessness due to rent arrears.
3.2 Suspend Universal Credit deductions and sanctions. Given the current risks and difficulties associated with work-related activities, the work search requirement should be suspended entirely. In addition, and in line with FCA proposals for consumer debt, all deductions from welfare benefits - not just those for benefit overpayment - should be suspended during the crisis.
3.3 Boost support for housing costs. Government has said tenants will not be evicted during the pandemic. But unless they are adequately supportred to bear their housing costs, tenants will loaded with rent debt and so be at high risk of eviction once the crisis is over. Government must mitigate this risk by increasing Local Housing Allowance (LHA) to cover the average cost (the 50th precntile) of renting across the country and lifting the benefit cap must be lifted so everyone can access the emergency funding.