The government must scrap plans to deport foreign rough sleepers and relaunch the “everyone in” strategy to protect thousands of homeless people from the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, charities and the mayor of London have said.
As temperatures drop and a new England-wide lockdown threatens to force more people on to the streets through unemployment, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, national homelessness charities and human rights groups are urging the home secretary, Priti Patel, to protect foreign nationals who make up almost half of the capital’s rough sleeping population.
They made the call after the government announced £15m in extra funding for areas with high numbers of rough sleepers to provide accommodation prioritising those who are clinically vulnerable. Councils that will receive the fund include Brighton, Bristol, Cornwall, Manchester and in London. But Crisis, the homelessness charity, said the money would “run out quickly” and was “not nearly as extensive as what we saw in March, yet the threat from the virus remains the same”.
The government also announced a further pause in eviction actions against renters with none enforced until 11 January, except in cases of anti-social behaviour or domestic abuse.
New post-Brexit immigration rules announced last month mean that officials can refuse a person permission to stay in the UK if they are satisfied they have been rough sleeping. Khan said this strengthened “already cruel hostile environment policies”. Housing charities including Crisis, Shelter, St Mungo’s and Homeless Link said it could drive some people into modern slavery exploitation to avoid sleeping rough and being deported.
The frontline groups are also urging ministers to reopen hotels to thousands of rough sleepers. Epidemiologists have warned that failure to act could cost hundreds of lives this winter. A study from academics at UCL, Imperial College and Lancaster University found that the spring “everyone in” campaign, which housed 15,000 people in budget hotels, may have prevented 266 deaths in England.
In a letter to Patel and the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, the charities said: “In place of a damaging policy that will risk further exploitation for people sleeping rough, we are calling on the Westminster government to make sure that everyone at risk on the streets this winter is offered safe emergency accommodation and support.”
They also want homeless people – who they say are more likely to experience a chronic health condition including respiratory problems – to be given priority for access to a vaccine when it comes, which is currently not the case.
Homeless people from the UK and abroad this week told the Guardian how losing work in restaurants, clubs and event security in recent months had triggered their homelessness. Others said domestic pressures caused by lockdown, and the difficulty of sofa-surfing during the pandemic, were the cause.
As the first lockdown eased this summer, there were 3,444 rough sleepers in London between July and September, more than half of whom were new to the streets. It was fewer than in the previous quarter, but there are fears of a new rise. Calls from 16 to 25-year-old rough sleepers, mostly in London and Manchester, to a helpline run by Centrepoint doubled in the months after the first lockdown, the charity said.
“It’s vital that ministers act swiftly to ensure the resources made available for Everyone In are again put in place as we re-enter a national lockdown,” said Seyi Obakin, Centrepoint’s chief executive.
Khan said: “Without a robust plan, including legislative changes, there is a real risk that all the positive work we have jointly done will be undermined, and that we will see soaring Covid-19 infection rates among rough sleepers spreading to the wider community.”
Holly, 21, a healthcare student from south London being helped by the New Horizon charity, told the Guardian she was thrown out of the home she shared with her family in July, leaving her homeless for two months moving from Travelodge to guesthouse rooms.
“After a few weeks we started having arguments about space, my stuff was in the corridor and I was sleeping in the living room,” she said. “So many young people had the same problem I had but they don’t talk about it. This second lockdown is not going to be good for a lot of young people.”
A Home Office spokesperson said the deportation rules would be used for “a small minority” who refuse government support and behave anti-socially repeatedly.
“This would be a last resort measure and initially individuals would be asked to leave voluntarily with government support. In the event that they refuse, we may take the step to remove them.”