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Reports of heavy sleep in the UK skyrocket during isolation

Reports of people sleeping rough rose sharply during lockdown, despite claims by government that more than 90% of homeless people had been helped off the streets at the height of the pandemic, the Guardian can reveal.

While the government launched a multimillion pound scheme to rehouse people during the Coronavirus crisis, charities said the pandemic had also led to a new cohort of people being made homeless as the services and facilities that they normally relied on closed.

Many were forced on to the streets when they lost jobs as the economy closed down, with those who did not have access to public funds – such as some foreign nationals – particularly affected.

The government’s Everyone In scheme – which saw £3.2m spent on getting people off the streets and into accommodation – was held up as an example of what could be done when homelessness was made a priority. Housing, communities and local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, boasted they had successfully taken 90% of rough sleepers off the streets to protect them from the virus.

However, new figures from the homelessness charity Streetlink show the picture was a more complicated one. Alerts by members of the public about rough sleepers increased by 36% year on year between April and June 2020, reaching 16,976. Notifications were also higher than the previous quarter which is unusual as they tend to rise in winter months, charities said.

The rise was particularly pronounced in the capital where there was a 76% increase, making up 71% of all alerts, substantially higher than usual. This is mirrored by annual figures on rough sleepers seen by outreach workers, published by the Greater London Authority, which showed numbers up by a third compared to the same period last year.

Matt Harrison, director of Streetlink, said the rise in reports could have been, in part, because rough sleepers were more visible during lockdown because streets were quieter, and that members of the public had heightened concern. But he also said that new people are being “forced to sleep rough for the first time as a direct impact of the virus” as support services shut.

“We know that more people sleeping rough were calling us because they were concerned about the pandemic situation and weren’t sure where to turn, particularly as the services and facilities that they normally relied on – including homelessness day centres, community centres and public toilets – had closed,” he said.

The Everyone In scheme, launched in March by Jenrick, gave emergency funding to help rough sleepers self-isolate in hotels and other housing during the height of the pandemic. It allowed healthcare and addiction services in some cases to engage with people who had long refused any help.

The government has repeatedly claimed that 90% of rough sleepers were helped during the pandemic. But, in June, the Office for Statistics Regulation criticised ministers for a lack of transparency by quoting figures without publishing supporting data.

Glen Bramley, professor of urban studies at Heriot-Watt University, said that government data on rough sleeping was based on an estimate of street counts which was “not a reliable system”. He said the actual number of rough sleepers could be much higher than official statistics suggest.

He said that we were “never going to see a disappearance of rough sleeping [after the introduction of the Everyone In scheme] due to the fact that there is always turnover in the population and people moving in and out of the situation”.

Bramley said: “One thing happened when lockdown happened was that a large number of people who were in the self-employment sector or on zero-hours contracts, or in informal employment situations – many of them migrants – immediately lost all work and ability to pay rent, so some of those people would be feeding into the new street homeless population.”

The data from Steetlink comes as charities warn that the homelessness problem is likely to get worse in the coming months if the government pushes ahead with a plan to lift a ban on evictions on 23 August, which is currently supporting those who have fallen behind on their rent.

Data obtained by the Guardian also suggests that just a fraction of those given shelter through the Everyone In scheme have been permanently rehoused and that hundreds were evicted from their hotel rooms due to antisocial behaviour. Charities warned that those evicted from the scheme will have returned to the streets and would be vulnerable in a second wave of the virus during the winter months.

Data obtained by freedom of information requests to 21 councils, including London boroughs and five other major cities across England, shows that of the nearly 4,000 people they housed under the scheme between March and May, 1,000 had left by the end of that period. The figures came from 16 London councils, Leicester, Bristol, City of Leeds, Coventry and Bradford.

16 councils of the 21 councils to provide figures gave a breakdown for the reason for early departure. Of the 3,246 housed by those local authorities, only 11% have gone on to be rehoused, while 5% were asked to leave because of antisocial behaviour.

Caroline Bernard, head of policy and communications at Homeless Link, said: “Our members reported that although they have successfully engaged many entrenched rough sleepers during the pandemic who had previously refused support, some people chose not to remain in their emergency accommodation.

“Many of these individuals struggled with isolation, social distancing and disruption to their support network and access to treatment, and returned to rough sleeping. However, services continue to support them and look for more sustainable housing solutions.”

She added that while the government scheme was appreciated there were concerns that it may exclude people with no access to public funds, and included no specialist provision for women, young people and survivors domestic abuse.

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “The government has taken unprecedented action to support the most vulnerable people in our society during the pandemic – backed by over half a billion pounds to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping this year and next.

“Nearly 15,000 vulnerable people have been housed in emergency accommodation and we are funding longer-term accommodation – 3,300 homes this year alone – and tailored support so as few people as possible return to life on the streets.”

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