How getting a hotel room in March kickstarted a life off the streets | Homelessness

Mick Norman, 51, who has a long history of alcohol and substance abuse and crime, had been living on the streets of east London “this time around” for 18 months. Norman had been homeless on and off since 2003. Everything changed when he was offered emergency accommodation in March as part of the government’s £3.2m “Everyone In” initiative to stop the spread of Covid-19. This saw around 15,000 street homeless people in England provided with hotel rooms or other emergency accommodation between March and April in order to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

“I used to commit petty crimes to get arrested so I could get back in prison when it got cold,” Norman admits. But this time he says he couldn’t get arrested in spite of stealing more than 700 items in the 11 weeks before lockdown.

Then the pandemic stuck. “I was sleeping behind the bingo hall in Stratford,” he recalls. “Thames Outreach offered me hotel accommodation in the second week of March but I didn’t want to go. I felt safer outside. They said if I didn’t get off the streets the police would come for me and more or less force me into emergency accommodation, so I took the room voluntarily.

“I’ve spent 20 years out of 51 in 36 different prisons. It’s time for something new, and that hotel room in March was the start of it.”

An address enabled him to register with a GP and his personal hygiene is much improved. “I’ve even been to the optician,” he says. “I will sort out my teeth next. I haven’t used any drugs for 10 weeks, and shopkeepers let me in their shops now.”

Although the Everyone In scheme has officially finished, Norman’s temporary accommodation is not scheduled to end until March 2021 because, like many other local authorities, Newham council chose to continue the scheme.

In September, the government allocated £91.5m to 274 of England’s 343 councils to fund their own individual rough sleeper plans, known as the Next Steps Accommodation Programme. But most local authorities say this is nowhere near enough to cope with this winter. And the additional £151m announced in last month’s spending review for English local authorities to help homeless people won’t be available until April 2021, and none of it will go on Everyone In emergency accommodation this winter.

Although Manchester city council got just over £3.5m of Next Steps funding, its director of homelessness, Mike Wright, says this is insufficient. “Everyone In was a success, and we have extended this work and carried on funding a hotel with 55 beds for winter,” he says. “We are funding 70 extra beds because we made a decision not to guillotine Everyone In.”

“The unknown factor for this winter is how many new homeless people will need help,” says Wright. “The government’s recent spending review hasn’t made clear how many cuts we will need to make next year to our homeless services.”

In November, Manchester warned that it might have to cut funding for rough sleepers as part of cuts to homelessness services totalling £2.8m. New figures show that waiting lists for accommodation in England are set to double to 2 million in 2021, while rough sleeping and homelessness is already rising.

Homelessness charities believe a second round of Everyone In funding is crucial.

“Despite the tremendous Everyone In effort, people are still having to sleep on our streets,” says Steve Douglas, the chief executive of homelessness charity St Mungo’s. “Although the Next Steps additional funds will provide longer-term accommodation and support funding, we are concerned that there is not enough self-contained emergency accommodation in place for everyone who will need it over the course of this winter”.

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes agrees. “We cannot let the progress made this year unravel,” he says, pointing to figures predicting some 200,000 households are expected to be homeless this Christmas.

Made homeless a year ago when her marriage ended, 54-year-old Margarita Alberg, previously a director of two companies, found herself on the streets when she rapidly sunk into depression and alcohol misuse. “I was offered a hotel room in March, and I stayed there for six weeks,” she says. It has helped her turn her life around.

The homeless charity Caritas Anchor House then offered her temporary accommodation during July and August, which she left in September, having secured permanent privately rented accommodation. “I am in a nice flat, sharing a kitchen with three others. Without this, I would still be on the streets.” Alberg is now able to claim universal credit and volunteers at a charity shop. “Life is quieter now. I’m not drinking. I go for walks in the park and I am reunited with my daughter.”

Somerset West and Taunton council used Everyone In funding to house its rough sleepers in disused halls of residence and spent the money helping them stop using drugs and alcohol. They employed a nurse and mental health services to support people like former teacher Alastair Smith, 55, whose alcoholism resulted in him sleeping in homeless hostels on and off for two years. He says he is drinking far less now having accessed help via Somerset Drug and Alcohol Service, and he knows of others who have quit spice and heroin.

Smith moved into halls of residence run by the YMCA in April and is now volunteering for the council writing a database for the council of its rough sleepers. He is planning on looking for more permanent accommodation once he gains more confidence. “One silver lining of Covid is that homeless people are finally being noticed. Many have been able to get structure and stability in their lives from having access to help and support.”

Before the pandemic there were 27 rough sleepers in the region. The number quadrupled after March and 110 people living on the streets have since been helped through Everyone In. The council is continuing to work in the spirit of the campaign, focusing on homeless people who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.

Federica Smith-Roberts, leader of Somerset West and Taunton council, says: “I want other councils and the government to look at this as a model for a way of working. When you can hear someone telling you that they are no longer taking drugs, or their mental health is in a better state, that for me is the reason I got into politics. You are turning someone’s life around.”

Back in Stratford, Norman now volunteers for a number of small local voluntary groups and mentors young people to help steer them away from crime. He hopes to secure funding for one of the projects so he and others can get paid for the work they do.

“I’m leading by example to show what can be done with a little bit of help if you want to change,” he says. “I want to help others to turn their lives around now, like I have.”

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