Charities call on government to treat homeless as 'vulnerable group' amid Covid-19 outbreak

18 March 2020, 00:00

Charities are saying homeless people need to be protected during the outbreak
Charities are saying homeless people need to be protected during the outbreak. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Leading homelessness charities have written to the Prime Minister calling for those sleeping rough to be recognised as a vulnerable group as the coronavirus outbreak takes hold.

Homeless people should have rapid access to testing and be provided with hotel-style self-contained accommodation with a private bathroom so they can safely isolate themselves, the charities said.

They have also called on Boris Johnson for an assurance that frontline workers in homelessness organisations are recognised as an emergency service, as part of the overall response to Covid-19.

The letter was signed by members of 10 organisations including Crisis, St Mungo's and Centrepoint.

They say homeless people should be given the means to at the very least follow the same social distancing advice as the over-70s, people with certain conditions and pregnant women.

Because of their pre-existing vulnerabilities, they should be treated the same as people who, in the coming days, will be asked to ensure they are "largely shielded from social contact" for around 12 weeks, or possibly longer.

But the organisations said Government measures for hostels and day centres "fail to provide the much more comprehensive plan and wide-ranging action needed to ensure that everyone facing homelessness is provided with self-contained accommodation, to ensure that they can self-isolate, and that people experiencing financial hardship are not left facing homelessness as a result of the impact of Covid-19''.

They want outreach teams to test people on the streets, in shelter accommodation and hostels for coronavirus, and for people without the virus to be immediately triaged so they can be "supported safely and kept out of communal air space".

The letter reads: "People experiencing homelessness, particularly those who are rough sleeping, are especially vulnerable in this outbreak.

"They are three times more likely to experience a chronic health condition including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

"It is therefore vital that they are recognised as a vulnerable group for the purposes of Government planning."

Current estimates suggest around 5,000 people sleep rough, and 40,000 people use shelters or hostels, in Great Britain on any given night.

Matthew Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, said "even the Government's basic advice on self-isolation cannot be followed" by rough sleepers on the streets or in communal shelters.

Anyone who tests positive should be taken to hospital, he said.

"If you bear in mind the severity of mental health issues, other health issues, this is a population of people where the average age of death is 45 and people die regularly from respiratory problems", he continued.

"What we are calling for is extraordinary measures to make sure people don't die of coronavirus simply because they are homeless, and we are going to see that unless there is a re-categorisation of people who are homeless as vulnerable, and therefore the state organises itself to find those people, do health checks, give emergency medical provision to people or housing."

Rooms for the homeless to isolate safely could be provided by the hotel sector, he said, supported by Government funds.

Mr Downie continued: "We are already seeing lots of offers from hotel chains for giving up accommodation for this purpose. We are not talking about millions of people, it's just a few thousand, so it can be done.

"These places are empty, no-one's staying in hotels, and the Government could help the survival of the hotel industry by making this new purpose for a short time at least."

It comes as Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick announced £3.2 million of emergency funding will go towards helping rough sleepers self-isolate.

Councils will be reimbursed for the cost of providing accommodation and services to rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping, who are suffering from or at risk of coronavirus, the Government said.

The funding will be available to all local authorities in England.

The letter also calls for the Government to remove legal barriers to homeless people accessing support in England and Wales, such as needing to demonstrate a local connection and that they are not intentionally homeless.

For tenants at risk in the private sector, the Government should put a temporary stop to evictions while the Covid-19 outbreak continues, and the five-week wait for the first payments of Universal Credit should be scrapped, they say.

It comes as the Chancellor announced there will be a three month mortgage holiday for anyone affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Rishi Sunak said the ongoing pandemic was something "we have never experienced an economic crisis in peace time like this one."

He said the policy is being put in place to help homeowner "get back on their feet".

There was, however, no measures announced for anyone who rents their home.

Mr Sunak added he would "go much further to support people's financial security" in the coming days.

"In particular, I will work with trade unions and business groups to urgently develop new forms of employment support to help protect people's jobs and their incomes through this period."

He also announced there will be an "unprecedented package" £330 billion package of government-backed loans to be made available to businesses by the end of this week.

The latest measures were unveiled after the Government's chief scientific adviser said around 55,000 people in the UK now have Covid-19, as the NHS moved to cancel all non-emergency surgery and 71 people are now known to have died.

Sir Patrick Vallance told MPs it is hoped the death toll can be kept to under 20,000 as he told of the huge amount of strain the health service will be under from Covid-19.