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Ending rough sleeping needs more than a sticking plaster

In December, I gave evidence to the MHCLG select committee about the impact of Covid-19 on rough sleeping.  My message to them was we desperately need investment in front line housing advice and long-term funding for genuinely affordable housing to really tackle the complex causes of rough sleeping. The pandemic has shown is what is politically possible, but short-term sticking plasters really need to become longer term solutions – and now is the time to make that case to the Government.

At the start of the lockdown councils were told by the government to do ‘whatever it takes’ to support our communities. One of the actions we took was to quickly house rough sleepers. Prior to the pandemic hitting rough sleeping had been steadily increasing after a decade of austerity, having been all but eliminated under the last Labour government.

The ‘Everyone In’ initiative made local authorities responsible for housing rough sleepers and those at risk of rough sleeping. This was regardless of priority need, local connection or recourse to public funds. 

We stepped up to the challenge in Tower Hamlets, the borough I represent. Around 260 individuals either rough sleeping on the streets, or at imminent risk of rough sleeping, were given emergency accommodation. 49 of this group had No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). We placed entrenched rough sleepers into newly procured commercial hotels and emergency B&B accommodation. Statistics are one thing but each number represents a life transformed and having a roof over your head unlocks access to so many other services and life chances.

Now we face a situation of uncertainty about future funding to support this cohort of people. While the Government has called for councils to come up with a plan on how to move rough sleepers on to the next stage of accommodation, we have again stepped up, but we need funding to back us all the way.

The Next Steps Accommodation Programme, a £400m national fund, offers some help but the costs we face are substantial. Housing benefit claims won’t cover the cost of the support for a group with complex needs.  Ongoing announcements about additional funding streams create pressure on already under resourced teams to write ‘bids’ and applications for resources for projects that are so clearly needed. This relationship between local and national Government is breaking and needs urgently fixing.

Now we are in a further lockdown, with high levels of Covid cases and temperatures plummeting, we need the Government to make suitable provision. On a practical level normal provision such as hubs will not work as self-contained units are still required. If the Government does not get this right it will lead to an increase in infections. A decade of austerity has shown that if you simply turn off the funding taps in one area it leads to further pressures on other public services with longer term impacts on other services like the NHS.

It’s taken a time of crisis for the Government to step in and give councils the funding they need to tackle rough sleeping and they desperately need to address the long-term undersupply of genuinely affordable housing. If something good can come out of the pandemic, it’s eradicating rough sleeping. The Government has a real chance to not undo the progress we have made.

<strong><span class="uppercase"><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Rachel Blake</span></span></strong>
Rachel Blake

Rachel is the Deputy Mayor for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. She was elected to represent the Labour Party for Bow East Ward in May 2014 and appointed to Cabinet in July 2015.

Rachel has held Cabinet Member roles for Regeneration, Planning, and Air Quality. Rachel is now the Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Well-being.

She has previously been called in as an expert witness to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on its inquiry into the long-term delivery of social and affordable rented housing.

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