Coronavirus and homelessness – an opportunity?

Words: Amy on June 13, 2020

How the coronavirus pandemic could create an unprecedented opportunity to help the homeless – we take a look at what’s happened so far..


In winter 2019 the number of rough sleepers in Bristol was at its highest level in a decade, with an estimated 100 people sleeping on the streets. The issue isn’t going away, and in March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic fully took hold of the UK there was fear of severe consequences for homeless people and the services provided to help them.

Services like HBH that give homeless people the opportunity to have a warm meal, a shower and to wash their clothes, were suddenly unavailable due to the rules surrounding self isolation and social distancing.

Very quickly, measures to combat the spread of coronavirus significantly impacted homeless people and rough sleepers. Having walked through the centre of Bristol one sunny April morning, streets would usually be full with workers commuting, school kids or people enjoying our great city. I looked around and the only person in sight was a homelessness man and his dog – with no opportunity to interact with anyone, no opportunity for cash or food donations. Let alone the risks to his health due to the inability to self-isolate in a safe environment or access sufficient cleaning facilities.

Homeless people are among the most vulnerable to coronavirus, they’re apparently three times more likely to have a severe respiratory problem, disproportionately affected by poor health, and often face challenges accessing the healthcare and support they need. The average life expectancy for someone living on the streets is 45. Charities had warned that people living on the streets or in crowded hostels were particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, which has killed over 40,000 people in Britain so far.

Following pressure from charities who claimed protecting homeless people was not only a ‘moral imperative‘ but an ‘urgent public health necessity‘, in March the Ministry of Housing and Local Government announced £6 million of emergency funding. This led to a scheme which took advantage of thousands of empty hotel rooms that were made available at a discounted cost to local councils to house homeless people. Referred to as the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, thousands of homeless people suddenly had a safe place to stay. In Bristol it’s thought around 260 people were accommodated in hotels across the city. As expected, some refused to go into hotels, and others have unfortunately been evicted, but it’s estimated 90% of those in need in England are receiving help and have had somewhere safe to stay during the pandemic.

Despite the positive momentum we’ve seen during the pandemic, there are worries that the government support may soon end. Apparently some hotel rooms are only confirmed until the end of June. And with uncertainty around who’s going to pay the bills once the government funding runs out, the pressure on councils could mean homeless people are moved out before getting the chance to secure longer term housing solutions. It’s no doubt a nervous time for those in need, as they fear they could be back to where they were before the pandemic began.

Of course it’s not just about accommodation. Most homeless people need support in other areas, and in some cases people have had access to healthcare and addiction services which they may have long refused. Having this opportunity may have forced some to get help and been a moment of realisation that there’s a way out of homelessness. Having a roof over their head is the best place to start, and is usually the stepping stone to getting help in other areas. This could be an unprecedented opportunity to stop people returning to the street. With many provided a safe and comfortable environment, which some haven’t had for years, some are seizing the opportunity – showing they can hold down a tenancy, and this could really be the chance to get back into stable accommodation for the long term.

This echoes our approach at HBH. By getting homeless people into safe comfortable accommodation they can then start to rebuild their lives.

Thousands of people have lost work and the potential looming economic crises means a huge number of people could find themselves unable to pay bills/rent, which may sadly lead to a wave of people becoming homeless.
The government’s just announced they’re extending the current freeze on landlord evictions, so tenants won’t yet be evicted for not paying rent but it’s unknown how long this will continue. We hope more will be done to get this right for the health and economic security of thousands of people and families at risk of homelessness.

The pandemic has been a major opportunity for change, and has shown what’s possible when the political urgency and willingness to spend money are aligned. We’re hopeful that the homeless agenda is in the spotlight as the pandemic continues, and we’re optimistic for further change. What we do know is that the need for services like HBH is only going to continue.

Please support us if you can – we need to provide more for the homeless people of Bristol, and be able to offer as much support as possible as we see the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the homeless.

If you’re able to make a donation, however big or small it will make a huge difference. You can donate here.

As always, we’re so grateful for your support – thank you!

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