COVID-19: housing people sleeping rough Contents

1Rough sleeping strategy


1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (the Department).1 We also took evidence from Baroness Casey, who temporarily led the Department’s pandemic response in respect of people sleeping rough in spring and summer 2020.

2.People sleeping rough—‘people sleeping […] in the open air, or people in buildings or other places not designed for habitation’2 —often suffer from poorer health than the general population, with many experiencing a combination of mental health, substance abuse, and physical health needs.3 Because of the prevalence of underlying health conditions among this population, people sleeping rough have been recognised as being particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.4 In addition, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, where people sleeping rough occasionally took shelter in communal settings, such as night shelters, and were unable to self-isolate and found it difficult to practise social distancing, risking transmission of the virus.5

3.In recognition of these public health risks, on 26 March 2020 the Department launched its Everyone In initiative.6 Everyone In required local authorities to take urgent action to house people sleeping rough and those at risk of rough sleeping in order to protect them and stop wider transmission of COVID-19. By mid-April, 5,400 people (90% of the then estimated population of 6,000 people sleeping rough in England, according to unverified estimates by local authorities) had been made an offer of emergency accommodation, often staying in hotels that had been block-booked by local authorities.7 Over the rest of the year local authorities both continued to take people into emergency accommodation and helped them move into more settled accommodation. By the end of January 2021, there were 11,263 people staying in hotels and other emergency accommodation, and a further 26,167 people who had been helped to find more settled accommodation.8

Maintaining the achievements of the Everyone In initiative

4.The Department conceived of Everyone In primarily as a public health measure, aimed at reducing the risks of COVID-19 to a vulnerable population, and at preventing wider transmission.9 In the first wave of the pandemic, it appears to have made a successful impact. According to one study, by closing night shelters and taking other actions to reduce transmission, Everyone In may have helped to prevent more than 20,000 infections and 266 deaths among the homeless population in the first wave.10 In terms of recorded deaths, as at the end of June 2020, of people whose deaths were registered as involving COVID-19, only the relatively small number of 16 were identified as having been homeless.11

5.The Department had not previously prepared a national pandemic plan for people sleeping rough for it to consult at the outset of this crisis.12 However, once the scale of the pandemic became apparent, in mid-March 2020, the Department rapidly adapted, redeploying staff around this new priority.13 In recognition of the sudden demands on its capacity, a key element of the Department’s response was bringing in Baroness Casey—who was due to work for the Department in an alternative capacity, leading a review into its rough sleeping strategy—to lead its pandemic response in respect of people sleeping rough.14 The Department also believes that investments it has made in recent years, in both personnel and relationships with local authorities, helped it to organise Everyone In successfully.15

6.For all concerned—staff at the Department, local authorities, and voluntary groups—implementing Everyone In meant maintaining a heightened level of intensity for a prolonged period.16 This has clearly tested the resilience of both staff and organisations which is also affected by the short term nature of funding.17 As a potential sign of such pressures, the Department’s awarding of funding for its Rough Sleeping Accommodation Programme was delayed in autumn 2020, due in part to workload demands overstretching staff capacity.18

7.Notwithstanding the evident successes of Everyone In in the first wave of the pandemic, the National Audit Office noted that the Department’s response to the resurgence of COVID-19 in autumn and winter 2020 did not appear as comprehensive as in the spring. The NAO suggested that the Department would need to keep under close review whether it was protecting vulnerable individuals as decisively as in the early stages of the pandemic.19 Emerging data from the second wave of the pandemic is concerning, with reports of a sharp rise in cases of COVID-19 among the rough sleeping population in London in December 2020 and January 2021.20 Anecdotal reports suggest a contributory factor may have been an apparent rise during the second wave in the use of—and occupancy rates within—hostels with some communal facilities.21

Rough sleeping target and strategy

8.The Department’s current Rough Sleeping Strategy was launched in August 2018, with a commitment to end rough sleeping by 2027.22 In December 2019 the new Government was elected with a manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by May 2024, three years earlier than the previous target.23 Following the adoption of this accelerated target, the Department recognised the need to review its existing strategy.24 In December it successfully asked Baroness Casey to lead a review; this was announced in February 2020, with work expected to get underway sometime after Easter 2020.25 Owing to the prioritisation given to COVID-19 from March 2020 onwards, plans for this review were put on hold, and have not since been revived.26 The Rough Sleeping Strategy, accordingly, remains out of date.27

9.In our evidence session the Department was unable to define exactly what it meant by the commitment “to end” rough sleeping; nor was it able to state clearly whether it was on track to meet this target, or how it would measure and report on it.28 This is a failure on the Department’s part, for which it cannot blame the pandemic. While the new target date for ending rough sleeping may only have been established in December 2019, the overall target to end rough sleeping had been in place since the launch of the Rough Sleeping Strategy in summer 2018. Essential elements, such as how the target was to be defined and success measured, should all have been established then.

10.Tackling rough sleeping on its own without addressing homelessness as a whole may even worsen other measures of homelessness, if it means only placing more people in temporary accommodation, thereby adding to the number of homeless households.29 Baroness Casey told us that, in her opinion, not only was a review of the Rough Sleeping Strategy still needed, but there should be a more expansive review which took into account “wider aspects of homelessness, particularly families in temporary accommodation”.30 This would be in line with both the previous recommendations of this Committee and the Department’s commitments in response. In 2017 this Committee recommended that the Department “publish a cross-government strategy for reducing […] all measures of homelessness”.31 The Department accepted this recommendation, announcing its plans to publish a strategy for rough sleeping as only a first step, and promising subsequently to “develop a broader strategy to ensure progress is made on wider issues relating to all forms of homelessness and homelessness prevention”.32 It has yet to implement this commitment. That the Department’s 2024 target is explicitly framed as ending rough sleeping implies not just the housing of all those on the streets at a particular point in time, but a long-term, sustainable reduction in factors which have historically caused people to start sleeping rough. Given this, it would seem clear that meeting this target must involve the wider availability of supported housing and affordable housing, which are themselves key to tackling the wider problem of homelessness in the round.33

The scale of rough sleeping

11.The Department publishes one official measure of rough sleeping, its annual snapshot, which estimates the number of people sleeping rough on one night every autumn.34 The latest annual snapshot of figure before the pandemic, taken in autumn 2019 was 4,266.35 In contrast, the number of people assisted under Everyone In after ten months (from the end of March 2020 to the end of January 2021) was 37,430, nearly nine times higher.36 The Department told us it was not surprising that there was a significant difference between the two numbers: the 4,266 snapshot is a measure of the “stock” of people sleeping on the streets at that particular moment in time, whereas the 37,430 figure captures the “flow” of people moving onto the streets (and then into emergency or settled accommodation) over a period of months.37 Another reason for the discrepancy is that the 37,430 figure includes those who would otherwise have been bedding down in communal night shelters, as well as others who were adjudged to be at risk of sleeping rough, groups who are excluded from the snapshot figures.38 The Department was clear that the snapshot provided a robust measure that allowed for year on-year comparisons, but that it did not reflect the total population of people sleeping rough over the course of a year.39

12.In June 2020 the Department began regular data collections from local authorities on numbers of people sleeping rough in their area.40 In spite of the Everyone In initiative (and other measures, such as a ban on evictions in the private rental sector), there were reports of increasing numbers of people sleeping on the streets over summer and autumn 2020.41 The data gathered by the Department apparently confirms the upward trend over this period.42 At the start of December the Department told us it was considering potential options for publication of this data.43 It has not published any of this data covering the summer or autumn of 2020, but in February 2021 it began publishing monthly data for rough sleeping numbers, beginning in December 2020. At our evidence session, the Department was confident that at the time the most recent snapshot was taken, in autumn 2020, the numbers of people sleeping rough were significantly lower than in 2019.44 This was confirmed, in February 2021, when the 2020 snapshot was published: this recorded rough sleeping figures of 2,688, a reduction of 37% from the 2019 snapshot.45

1 C&AG’s Report, Investigation into the housing of rough sleepers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Session 2019–21, HC 1075, 14 January 2021.

2 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Guidance: Homelessness data: notes and definitions, 3 April 2018.

3 C&AG’s Report, para 1.3.

4 D Lewer et al., ‘COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness in England: a modelling study’, The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, vol. 8 issue 12, December 2020, pp. 1181–91.

5 C&AG’s Report, para 1.4.

6 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Letter from Minister Hall to local authorities on plans to protect rough sleepers, 26 March 2020.

7 These figures are not directly comparable with the Department’s official snapshot of rough sleepers (4,266), taken on one night in autumn 2019. This is partly because the methodology used to produce them is less robust, and partly because the figure of 6,000 rough sleepers includes those sleeping in night shelters, who are excluded from the annual snapshot. C&AG’s Report, paras 1.9, 1.12.

8 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency accommodation survey data: January 2021, 25 February 2021.

9 Qq 3, 16; C&AG’s Report, para 1.15.

10 D Lewer et al., ‘COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness in England: a modelling study’, The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, vol. 8 issue 12, December 2020, pp. 1181–91.

11 Office for National Statistics, Coronavirus and deaths of homeless people, England and Wales: deaths registered up to 26 June 2020, 10 July 2020.

12 Q 15; C&AG’s Report, para 1.10.

13 C&AG’s Report, para 1.10.

14 Qq 14, 17–18.

15 Qq 15, 20.

16 C&AG’s Report, para 1.12.

17 Qq 19–20.

18 C&AG’s Report, para 2.20.

19 C&AG’s Report, para 20(c).

20 [Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, University College London].

21 [Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, University College London].

22 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Rough Sleeping Strategy, August 2018, Cm 9685, para 1.

23 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, “Prime Minister pledges new action to eliminate homelessness and rough sleeping”, press release, 23 December 2019.

24 C&AG’s Report, para 2.21.

25 Q 14.

26 C&AG’s Report, para 2.21.

27 C&AG’s Report, para 18.

28 Qq 70–71.

29 House of Commons Library, Statutory homelessness in England, Briefing Paper 01164, 26 November 2020, p 3.

30 Q 67.

31 Public Accounts Committee, Homeless households, Eleventh Report of Session 2017–19, HC 462, December 2017, conclusion 1.

32 HM Treasury, Treasury Minutes: Government response to the Committee of Public Accounts on the Fourth to the Eleventh reports from Session 2017–19, Cm 9575, March 2018, p 30.

33 Public Accounts Committee, Homeless households, Eleventh Report of Session 2017–19, HC 462, December 2017, conclusions 3–4.

34 C&AG’s Report, Figure 1.

35 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Rough sleeping snapshot in England: autumn 2019, 27 February 2020.

36 C&AG’s Report, para 2.1.

37 Q 47.

38 Q 47; C&AG’s Report, para 2.3.

39 Q 47.

40 C&AG’s Report, para 2.9.

41 Q 54; C&AG’s Report, para 2.8.

42 C&AG’s Report, para 2.9.

43 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Letter from Jeremy Pocklington CB to Meg Hillier MP, 2 December 2020.

44 Q 6.

45 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Rough sleeping snapshot in England: autumn 2020, 25 February 2020.

Published: 17 March 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement