Part 2: The impact of Coronavirus on people sleeping rough – is this an opportunity to end street homelessness?

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About the author

Nick SelwynNick Selwyn is a Local Government Manager at Audit Wales, with responsibilities for our programme of all-Wales local government studies and our work with Fire and Rescue and National Park authorities. Prior to joining Audit Wales 15 years ago he worked for several local authorities in housing and social care and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Housing.

Coronavirus has affected all of us; but the impact on homeless people has been far more drastic.

When our towns and cities closed down, public spaces closed, and outdoor movements became restricted. This response helped slow the spread of the virus and save lives by reducing the opportunities for the virus to accelerate and put more people at risk.

Governments across the world responded quickly to get homeless people off the streets and into accommodation. More than 1,200 people were placed in motel accommodation across New Zealand. Similarly, the eight states and territories in Australia housed 5,000 people living on the streets of their capital cities — expanding shelter space, booking hotel rooms, taking over public buildings, and generally doing whatever it takes to keep people two metres apart in clean, stable housing. In the first three months of the pandemic the Welsh Government supported councils to rehouse over 800 people sleeping rough or at risk of homelessness.

One of the unexpected outcomes of the lockdown is that rough sleeping has been significantly reduced. Implementing a stringent lockdown was an emergency measure. But it’s also been widely successful at helping solve a problem that for years has seemed impossible to crack — getting long-term rough sleepers off the streets, into accommodation and with a chance to rebuild their lives.

The challenge now is to build on this initial policy and make this emergency response a permanent change. We know that ending homelessness is not easy; but it is the right thing to prioritise. It will reduce demand on emergency and acute services, it saves lives and makes better use of money. Is this conceivable?

Based on our research we, in Audit Wales, believe that for the first time in a generation reducing the extent of rough sleeping in Wales is a possibility. But it needs public bodies to not just focus on giving people a roof over their head. It needs all partners to change what they do and how they do it.

At a national level it is vital that governments provide clear leadership on tackling this issue. All parts of the public sector need to work together to deliver alternative housing, support and assistance for those without a place to remain safe. In this respect Wales is off to a good start.

The Welsh Government has recently announced that it is investing a further £20 million that will be used to build homes and convert empty properties to avoid homeless people going back on to the streets after the pandemic. Councils are being asked to develop plans and find permanent homes for hundreds of rough sleepers who moved into emergency accommodation during lockdown.

At the top, the tone is one of “we can do this”. But what else needs to happen?

At the end of the month we will be publishing a report on how public bodies can help end rough sleeping. To help make this ambition a reality we believe that public bodies need to:

  • Agree and commit to stop people ever having to sleep rough. Signing up to ending homelessness sends the signal that you’re serious and own this.
  • Accept that no single organisation can solve this – everyone has a part to play. You may think your role is peripheral or not central. It may be marginal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. All public bodies can make a difference here.
  • Walk the talk – invest in services and accept that there is a cost to your organisation to help end homelessness. Importantly, our research shows that this investment will be paid back to the public purse many times over.
  • Design and deliver person centred services that encourage people to use them, engaging directly with people on the streets.
  • Recognise that digital led provision has a place; but it can also be a hinderance. Services need to be personalised, not standardised.
  • Cut red tape – systems and processes must be agile.
  • Integrate and collaborate to tackle problems – people, posts, systems and offices. Solutions need to be broad, quick and relentless.
  • Follow the evidence – check what works frequently and change what doesn’t quickly.

Our report includes a self-assessment for public bodies to use to help formulate their response. We will also publish a data tool to identify where we need to focus prevention work in the future to truly address homelessness in the long-term.

Wales stands on the threshold of achieving something truly transformational. Responding to the impact of the pandemic on street sleeping has shown what is possible – now it’s down to all of us to make no more homelessness the ‘new normal’!

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