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How we're tackling homelessness during Covid-19

11 March 2021

Keira Harrison, local service manager at Thurrock Homelessness Service, spoke to Inside Housing to provide a frontline perspective on supporting homeless people during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Keira, local service manager, spoke to Inside Housing about supporting homeless people on the frontline.

Lockdown has been, and continues to be, so hard for many people. But for most of us, 'Stay at home' means remaining in the building where we live, with heating and food and running water – what if home was a cardboard box on the street?

Working on the frontline during the pandemic, it’s been clear to see the devastating impact this awful virus can have on homeless people in our communities.

A recent study by St Mungo’s found that 20 per cent of its clients suffered underlying health conditions, putting them more at risk of suffering from acute cases of COVID-19. Of those living in emergency hotels, more than one in five were classed as vulnerable or extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 and similar numbers were not registered with a GP when they moved in.

Those figures highlight how it is more vital than ever to identify and support rough sleepers.

At Sanctuary Supported Living, our teams do everything we can to support homeless people and unlock the help and support they so urgently need.

Here at Thurrock Homelessness Service – and indeed right across the south-east - we have experienced a huge increase in the number of rough sleepers needing shelter during lockdown restrictions this winter.

In September, when we first took over the service, we had six rough sleepers referred to our service. During November and December, that number increased to 34, who we supported through floating support, rough sleeper outreach and supported housing services.

Covid has also thrown up tough logistical challenges for our teams to overcome; how to balance safely accommodating people with the social distancing requirements the virus demands, how to build connections and conduct key conversations with vulnerable clients from behind masks and layers of PPE.

But despite these challenges and the growing need, services like ours have never been better placed to respond. The Everyone In initiative – a huge positive to come from the pandemic response – has harboured a spirit of cooperation and urgency that has enabled us to achieve incredible things.

Working closely with the local authority and other support agencies, we were successful in referring 18 of those 34 people for housing due to being able to identify and confirm that they are rough sleepers.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on homelessness and has given us a once-in-a-generation chance to achieve our shared goal of ending rough sleeping.

Keira Harrison, Local Service Manager

My team recently came across one rough sleeper, Sid*, freezing cold in a broken-down car in the early hours of the morning. Sid was unkempt and unwell, but one of the kindest and most well-mannered people I have ever met.

After establishing Sid’s identity, we worked closely with Thurrock Borough Council and the Everyone In programme to support him throughout the day and get him the ID he needed to be accommodated.

A few weeks on he is settled and receiving benefits. He still requires some support around his health but is managing well and has recently secured a job in a loading bay.

When we visited Sid to see how he had settled, he called us his “angels” and told us, without hesitation: “If you had not come along that night, I would have taken my own life. I had been sleeping rough for so long I could no longer bear it.”

While the circumstances for each rough sleeper are unique, they are united by one universal thread – an urgent need for support and intervention to help change their situation.

Sid’s story highlights the worst and best of experiences for those working to tackle homelessness.

The heart-breaking lows of seeing somebody as full of warmth and humanity as Sid believing they have no avenue to turn to but to take their own life.

And the highs that comes from helping to change things for them. Stories like Sid’s remind us all why we do the work we do and highlight the positive outcomes we can achieve.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on homelessness and has given us a once-in-a-generation chance to achieve our shared goal of ending rough sleeping.

It has also highlighted the incredible drive and passion of this country’s frontline homelessness workers and provided the framework for them to make a real difference.

Sid’s story is unique to him but there remain countless other Sids who deserve the same outcome.

Our teams may not be “angels” as Sid describes, but the work we do is undoubtedly saving lives. The pandemic has provided momentum; if we can continue to work together effectively, united, the results for those unfortunate enough to be sleeping rough may just be heaven sent.

*name has been changed

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