Treat the housing and homelessness crises as a national emergency

By Brian Jennings | 26 March 2021

Today marks one year since Luke Hall – then minister for local government and homelessness – wrote to every local authority in England asking them to urgently accommodate every person sleeping rough on the streets.

On a day like today it’s important to reflect on the exceptional response delivered to an unprecedented national health emergency.

Between the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and January 2021 more than 37,000 people across England have been housed in hotels and other forms of emergency accommodation.

The adoption of hotels to deliver high-quality single-room accommodation meant no outbreaks of COVID were experienced in homelessness settings during the first wave of the pandemic.

According to a study published in The Lancet last year researchers at University College London estimated that the measures introduced to stop the spread of COVID-19 among people affected by homelessness helped to prevent 21,092 infections, 1,164 hospital admissions, 338 ICU admissions and 266 deaths.

Riverside has supported more than 600 people affected by homelessness living in hotels in London, Manchester and Liverpool during this national health emergency.

Interviews with people staying at the Riverside run Holiday Inn in Manchester informed us that the provision of this high-quality accommodation has produced better outcomes for people affected by homelessness.

This has been borne out by the statistics which shows that, of the 37,430 people helped as part of  ‘Everyone In’, almost 70% were supported to move on from emergency accommodation into settled accommodation – more than the population of Skegness, Felixstowe or Swinton.

As well as reflecting on what has been achieved it is also important to think ahead and ask what more we should do to improve the lives of those still living in emergency accommodation, those in more settled accommodation and people still sleeping rough on the streets.

Through the Next Steps Accommodation Programme Riverside has created 43 new homes for people affected by rough sleeping across six local authority areas including: Guildford, Swale, Medway, Rochdale, Hull and Liverpool.

This has been achieved in difficult circumstances and has included the acquisition of 22 homes from the private sector and brought back into social housing sector in a matter of months.

In doing so Riverside has invested £1.9m of its own money alongside the government’s investment of £1.13m through the Next Steps Accommodation Programme.

These new homes are creating a lifeline for people like Peter, 40, who intermittently slept rough for more than six years but has now moved into a one-bedroom terrace in Liverpool.

Peter told us: “I’m delighted with my home. It’s a wonderful experience to have somewhere to call home that I haven’t had for more than six years. I have recently passed my security qualification which means I can now start looking for work as well.”

The Government has successfully mobilised local authorities, the NHS, other health partners, agencies and charities across the country onto an emergency footing to tackle homelessness during a national emergency.

On top of the achievements of ‘Everyone In’ local authorities and providers like Riverside have been working on an emergency footing again to acquire private sector properties very quickly at the same time as there has been a house buying boom.

However, while we were delighted to bring 43 homes into use for people affected by rough sleeping we know that much more needs to be done.

Now it’s time to treat our housing and homelessness crises as a national emergency.

The Government has committed to an ambitious target to eradicate rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament (2024). To make this happen the Government needs to move beyond commissioning short-term accommodation solutions and commit to a long-term programme to build new homes – including 90,000 new homes a year available for social rent – and longer-term contracts to provide support services for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

To solve the housing and homelessness crises we need to create new homes to increase the undersupply of housing in England and deliver new forms of transitional housing which help people to better recover from the trauma of homelessness.

The pandemic has proven that we had more than 37,000 people at risk of rough sleeping in Britain - nearly nine times the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough on one night in in the annual snapshot in autumn 2019 (4,266).

It is highly likely that more people will be affected by homelessness as the severity of the economic impact caused by COVID-19 pandemic comes to light.

Research by one newspaper showed that councils across the UK had spent £300m on emergency accommodation in just three years.

Investing in housing and homelessness services will not only save hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on emergency accommodation it will help to stimulate the economy and create new construction jobs.

Let’s make it happen.

Brian Jennings is project lead for the Next Steps Accommodation Programme at Riverside

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