When temperatures drop, local authorities activate Severe Weather Emergency Protocols, providing emergency accommodation for those sleeping rough. As Hannah Faulkner, Head of St Mungo’s Rough Sleeper Services in London, says: ‘Being street homeless is harmful and dangerous at any time. However, when the temperatures fall it can become life threatening. This winter we are again facing the dual threat of cold weather and Covid-19.’ This winter is also an important test of the government’s ability to achieve its pledge of abolishing rough sleeping by 2024.
The government provided a solution in March 2020, at the beginning of the first lockdown, instructing English councils to accommodate all those sleeping rough or at risk of sleeping rough and providing funding to support them in doing so. The normal tests of ‘priority need’ or immigration status, required by legislation, were waived; quite simply, the health risks posed by people sleeping rough—both to themselves and to the risk of transmission generally—outweighed the rationing of resources that councils would normally undertake.
The instruction, known as ‘Everyone In’, was welcomed by councils, by campaigners against homelessness, and by those brought in from the streets. Similar instructions were published by the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, too. At the same time, the courts were banned from making possession orders, so that tenants and owner occupiers could not be evicted by their landlords or lenders. Fewer people became homeless, although councils did report that people were approaching them having been asked to leave by family or friends with whom they had been staying.
Five months into the pandemic, medical journal The Lancet published research showing that Everyone In had avoided over 21,000 infections and over 1,000 hospital admissions in England. In all, it had already saved around 266 rough sleepers’ lives.
Over time, though, the government began to row back. By May 2020, it was advising councils to apply a test of immigration status, so that people who had No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) would no longer be accommodated. There was patchy compliance: research by Shelter found that around half of the councils in England continued to accommodate people with NRPF, but some people found themselves back on the streets.
In addition, although those sleeping rough in March 2020 were accommodated, a new cohort of rough sleepers emerged. Statistics showed that rough sleeping had actually increased in 2020 in London, despite Everyone In. Many of those sleeping rough were prohibited from claiming welfare benefits as a result of NRPF: they had been occupying insecure accommodation, and had found themselves suddenly without a job.
The government rightly lauds the success of Everyone In. By January 2021, over 37,000 people who would otherwise have been on the streets in England had been given emergency accommodation. 26,000 of those had then been moved into longer term accommodation, too, rather than simply thrown back on the streets.
But there is currently confusion about whether or not Everyone In remains policy. A High Court case to be heard next week may resolve that, but as a result of the uncertainty, rough sleeping is increasing—although statistics for 2021 have not yet been published.
It is not safe to sleep rough in any weather. Government figures on deaths of homeless people in England and Wales estimate that 688 homeless people died in 2020. Around 13 of them died from Covid-19; most deaths were from drug or alcohol poisoning, or suicide.
Precisely because of the success of Everyone In, 2020 was the first year since 2015—when statistics were first published—in which the figure for deaths of homeless people fell. The worry now is that 2020 was a blip, and that homeless people will now continue to die on the streets in ever-increasing numbers.
More recently, the effectiveness of Everyone In has been analysed by the Kerslake Commission on Homelessness and Rough Sleeping, chaired by Robert Kerslake. Its report, ‘A new way of working: ending rough sleeping together’, was published in September 2021, and praises councils, other public authorities, and the voluntary sector for how they worked together, creatively, to deliver emergency accommodation during the pandemic.
Kerslake calls for rough sleeping to be seen as both a housing and a health issue. The cost to the public purse of a single person sleeping rough for twelve months is £20,180, borne principally by the NHS, but also by social care and the criminal justice sector—so early intervention avoids far more expensive consequences. Good quality emergency accommodation should be available, Kerslake recommends, without the person having to show a priority need, and the supply of good quality affordable social homes must be increased. One measure suggested to help rough sleepers who are unable to claim welfare benefits is for councils to fund immigration advice, so that they can regularise their position and work or claim benefits.
There is a major political opportunity here. The danger for the Labour Party is that the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, will outflank us and adopt Kerslake. That means Labour should be calling for government to implement Kerslake’s recommendations urgently, and should also be looking to a future where all rough sleepers are housed, regardless of priority need, the ‘becoming homeless intentionally’ test, or immigration status. The Welsh government, by comparison, is currently considering abolition of priority need; in Scotland, it was abolished all the way back in 2012.
Everyone In was the right response, by a right-wing government, at an unprecedented time. Labour now needs to be saying loud and clear that abolishing rough sleeping in all weathers is the right thing for government to do. ‘We must not let institutional barriers that so rapidly came down during the pandemic creep up again,’ Kerslake says. Everyone In should continue.