Rough sleepers will die this winter if the government fails to act on the confluence of Coronavirus and cold weather, doctors and campaigners have warned.
Homeless people face a dilemma between staying outside or going into crowded shelters where COVID hygiene is likley to be limited, the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of General Practitioners have told ministers.
Alongside charities such as Crisis, Shelter, and St Mungo’s, the royal colleges says they want a repeat of the ‘Everyone In’ policy adopted in March and April, when 15,000 homeless people received emergency accommodation, saving an estimated 266 people from dying, according to one study.
Prof Andrew Hayward – a member of the government’s Sage advisory group and director of UCL’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care – is one of the signatories of a letter that says self-contained accommodation for rough sleepers must be prioritised.
The letter cited a New York study showing the risk of dying from COVID-19 for people staying in communal shelters was 61% higher than for the general population.
Prof Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “Without urgent action from the government to keep homeless people off the streets this winter, lives will most certainly be lost.”
Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of Crisis, said: “Predictions of deaths among people who have nowhere else to go, other than our streets, or sleeping in communal night shelters that are not Covid-secure, must act as a wake-up call to the government.
“We cannot have hundreds or even thousands of people forced to live in crowded places, where proper social distancing is impossible and the risk of coronavirus transmission is incredibly high.”
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The letter warns that funding packages for local councils to get rough sleepers into safe accommodation are waning – it cited one study of people facing homelessness in London that showed their levels of frailty were comparable to 89-year-olds.
It follows a similar call by the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, who earlier this week told Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick that the government was showing “complacency and inaction”.
“With only weeks to go before shelters would normally begin to open, and with one having opened already in London, the government has neither published any guidance to the sector on communal sleeping nor made provision to fund COVID-safe alternatives,” Khan said in a letter.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said it is working on operating principles so that currently closed night shelters can be reopened as safely as possible where self-contained accommodation isn’t available.
“Working with councils, charities and other partners we will protect vulnerable rough sleepers this winter and fund longer-term accommodation and tailored support to end rough sleeping for good,” the spokesperson said.
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