UNISON member Sarah Wall is a team leader in a homeless hostel in Birmingham. In the week that the lockdown was announced, Birmingham City Council urged local services to get all rough sleepers off the streets.
Sarah remembers it clearly. “The busiest Monday I’ve ever had was at the end of March. There was a lot of last-minute pressure from Birmingham City Council for us to get everyone off the street.
“Two weeks before that, all the local housing providers were called into a meeting to look at potential strategies for rehousing people.
“Usually, the rough sleeper team go out and approach people, and signpost them to an emergency bed. We’re continuing to do that, but since COVID-19 broke out, a hotel has been rented out so individuals can have their own self-isolation spaces.”
She explains that the city didn’t have the capacity to house every single homeless person. Some services were already full before the outbreak. Without the hotel, there’d be no other way of managing it – particularly as some homelessness services do not have self-contained units, meaning that people were sharing rooms or communal facilities.
Despite Birmingham being known as one of the UK’s worst homelessness hotspots, statistics from February show that the city had made a huge reduction in rough sleeping.
However, even when homeless individuals have been housed, Sarah and her team face another set of challenges.
“We’ve got certain people who are housed, and they’re going out and breaching lockdown. We can’t manage it. Rough sleepers are the most vulnerable group of people in society, with so many different agencies involved in their lives.
“I work in a complex needs service, with people who are substance users. The limited access to external services has resulted in people relapsing and going through withdrawals.
“A lot of our service users are dependent on soup kitchens and food banks, and almost all of them have had to be shut down immediately, so we’ve been receiving food donations at the hostel.”
Sarah feels like frontline homelessness services have been forgotten in the national narrative around personal protective equipment (PPE) and “heroes”.
“Everybody’s talking about PPE for the NHS and people working in care homes. I’ve never heard anyone mention other auxiliary services or homeless services,” she notes.
“None of my team members, or anyone in the entrenched rough sleeper team, was put on the supply list.
“You have no idea how much risk we take in a face-to-face homeless service. The amount of exhaustion people feel goes unrecognised. I’ve felt like I’m more at risk of exhaustion than COVID-19. And exhaustion could lead to infection.”
Staffing is also part of the challenge.
“I’ve got a team where staff are coming in. In another service, there’s no staff and they’re running on agency workers only because people are all in self-isolation or the vulnerable category as outlined by the government guidelines.”
“The other week I walked into a complex care service, and all of the residents were all in the corridor, all wanting support and interaction, and their anxiety levels were quite high. How can we keep safe measures and social distancing in that environment?”
Despite its challenges, COVID-19 has proven that it is possible for the government to house rough sleepers. The UK has drastically managed to reduce homelessness over a period of two to three weeks.
Sarah fears that it will go back to where it was before, though.
“We should be planning a strategy for all the way to December and into January, not just up until September. We also need to look at our personal resilience and take precautions to make sure we’re safe.
“The government needs to remember homelessness services alongside care homes when it comes to COVID-19 responses. We’ve managed to house a lot of people during COVID-19, so what now?”
UNISON West Midlands community branch secretary James Hawker says that this “is a story we are seeing repeated in services across the region.
“Many third-sector organisations dealing with homelessness, and drug and alcohol units, have continued to work over and above capacity throughout the lockdown, with members feeling they are getting little support or guidance from government departments.
“These services were systematically underfunded prior to the pandemic and the amount of funding being injected now is a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to make these services effective and safe for both service users and our members.”
James points out that, unlike in the health service, which is a much more controlled environment, members looking after homeless people “are on the street or in hostels where they have very limited influence over the coming and goings of their service users and how they interact. They place themselves at risk every day with little or no PPE, depending on how their employers are interpreting guidance.
“The members working in these tough and unforgiving environments have my complete admiration, and we are doing everything we can to make sure they’re safe and can work without fear.”