Coronavirus: homelessness

Published 31/07/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Most of us have been spending much more time at home over the past few months, but what if you had nowhere to call home?

This blog post reflects on the action taken across Wales to protect people sleeping rough or facing homelessness during the pandemic and looks at plans to ensure nobody returns to living on the streets.

Responding to a pandemic

The prevalence of underlying health conditions, the inability to follow guidance to self-isolate and difficulty in accessing basic hygiene facilities made people sleeping rough especially vulnerable to coronavirus.

On 20 March the Welsh Government had intended to provide an update on the work of the Homelessness Action Group, which advises the Welsh Government on ways to prevent and end homelessness. Instead, it announced an addition £10 million for local authorities to help people sleeping rough or in unsuitable temporary accommodation during the pandemic.

The Welsh Government called for a “centralised coordination cell” to be established by each local authority in partnership with relevant health and third sector providers. Over subsequent weeks the Welsh Government worked with stakeholders to develop a range of detailed guidance to support the sector’s response.

Priority need for all?

People sleeping rough are not automatically in “priority need” under Welsh homelessness legislation. That means they are not always provided with immediate temporary accommodation and local authorities may not have a duty to secure them permanent accommodation. However, temporary changes over winter 2019/20 saw short-term recommendations from the Homelessness Action Group implemented. Those recommendations saw people sleeping rough in some areas treated as being in priority need so rough sleeping could be tackled areas where it was most prevalent.

In late April 2020, the Welsh Government made it clear to local authorities through statutory guidance that a person who was either street homeless, or faced with street homelessness, during the pandemic should ordinarily be regarded as vulnerable and therefore in priority need. The guidance said that coronavirus was a “grave and exceptional risk” to homeless people.

There is an ongoing debate about the use of priority need within Welsh homelessness legislation. In 2018, the Senedd’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee recommended rough sleepers should be considered a priority need group as a first step to abolishing the priority need test entirely. A review of the use of priority need, led by Cardiff University, has been carried out for the Welsh Government although its outcome is not yet public.

Hotels, houses and halls

The additional funding provided by the Welsh Government allowed local authorities to access temporary accommodation on a scale, and of a type, not seen before. Providing additional accommodation allowed people who were homeless to be protected, supported, and isolated if necessary.

In Cardiff, two hotels were used to provide 130 units of accommodation with round the clock support from staff. In Swansea, a city centre supported housing project to accommodate 20 single people was brought into use with third-sector partners. In Wrexham, Glyndŵr University made student accommodation available to the local authority. Across Wales, private landlords were encouraged by Rent Smart Wales to register their vacant properties to help accommodate homeless households.,

Somewhere safe to stay

Local authorities and their partners have been able to use additional funding from the Welsh Government to accommodate large numbers of people in temporary accommodation since the start of the outbreak – around 900 people by early June. This was in addition to those already in temporary accommodation when the coronavirus lockdown began.

Most of the people now in temporary accommodation will not have been sleeping rough. Households helped will include families and individuals who may have been in unsuitable accommodation, survivors of domestic abuse, people who had been evicted before the pandemic (evictions are currently suspended until late August), people in unsuitable shared accommodation and many people who, before the pandemic, may not have approached local authorities for help. That could include people who had temporary arrangements with friends or family that became unsustainable during lockdown.

Those accommodated during the pandemic will also include a relatively small number of people with no recourse to public funds - people subject to immigration control who can’t generally access public services. The Welsh Government indicated early in its response to the pandemic that this group should be given shelter and local authorities should “utilise alternative powers and funding” to assist them.

Phase two: “innovation, building and remodelling”

Local authorities and their partners from the public, private and third sectors are now moving into phase two of the strategy, so “no one need return to the street”. This was initially backed by “one-off” Welsh Government funding of £20 million and subsequently increased to £50 million. Each local authority has been asked by the Minister for Housing and Local Government to develop a plan which will form the basis of a funding bid.

In the Minister’s statement on 28 May she outlined what was expected of local authorities. Phase two plans should be “focussing on innovation, building and remodelling to transform the accommodation offer across Wales”.

The Welsh Government’s phase two planning guidance provides more detail about developing plans. Rapid rehousing will be a key element of Phase two plans, providing people with long-term housing and support as quickly as possible. On 28 July the Welsh Government confirmed all 22 local authorities had submitted applications for phase two funding.

It is anticipated that phase two will run until March 2021, by which time phase three, a “new normal” will have commenced.

Looking to the future

Accommodating so many people in such a short period of time is a considerable achievement and appears to have saved lives. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that, of the deaths attributable to COVID-19 in Wales up to 26 June, none were identified as people who were homeless. For the same period in England, ONS reported 16 deaths. Reducing the numbers of people living on the streets has long been an aspiration, but it took a public health emergency, additional funding and partnership working across sectors to make it a reality.

The challenge now is to ensure there is no return to the streets, but also to prevent the wider homeless population, many of whom will have sought help for the first time during the pandemic, returning to insecure, unsuitable or unsafe accommodation.

The Welsh Government wants homelessness to be “rare, brief and un-repeated” and it appears that a global pandemic has provided the best opportunity to make that aspiration a reality.

Article by Jonathan Baxter, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.