Rethinking Rough Sleeping

Rethinking rough sleeping in the pandemic

Published: 20/04/2020

Author: Claire Williams

Coronavirus (COVID 19) has led to significant impacts on the homelessness and supported housing sector. The policy landscape is changing very quickly and we hope to offer an insight into the messages from the sector that may support how we work with people who are rough sleeping in this critical time.

This spring we were due to release a Strategic Briefing focusing on the role of adult social care in the prevention and relief of rough sleeping. The briefing was co-produced by people with lived experience of homelessness services and offers key recommendations for decision-makers in local areas on how services can best support people who are rough sleeping.

We are delaying the release of this briefing until the landscape is more settled, but can offer an insight into some of the messages, which may support how we work with people who are rough sleeping in this critical time.

Below are four key recommendations and examples of some of the new challenges arising due to COVID-19.

Working together locally towards systems and culture change to support joined-up working across teams

Now more than ever, a joined-up approach is essential to supporting rough sleepers, and local authorities are well placed to take a strategic position in the identification, planning and provision of services and support for people who are sleeping rough in response to the pandemic. The Minister for Local Government and Homelessness wrote to all local authorities on 26th March setting out the approach and support available for ‘bringing everyone in’. In response to this, London’s specialist homelessness clinicians and partners have developed a COVID-19 Homeless sector plan which advocates use of the public health response of ‘protective cohorting’ to ensure that the homeless populations’ needs are met and to avoid concentrated outbreaks of Covid-19 within homelessness provision. This means separating people with symptoms compatible with Covid-19 from those with no symptoms, and ensuring that they are placed in distinct ‘Covid-care’ or ‘Covid-protect’ accommodation placements, in which they can receive a range of services (Kirby, 2020). Homeless link also recommend that local areas set up a homelessness and COVID-19 task force, including the police, housing, health, homelessness, people with lived experience and the wider voluntary sector. These taskforces can help in gathering current intelligence on the demographic and the needs of current rough sleepers and the perceived risk in each of the main homelessness services (day centres, hostels and night shelters). (Homeless Link, 2020)

Ensuring people with care and support needs are at the centre of decision-making

It is vital that decision-makers in social care listen to and learn from people with experience of services to ensure their needs are met.  Support from senior leaders, acting as champions for change, can have a powerful effect (Health Foundation 2014).

People who are rough sleeping often have complex circumstances, they are considered one of the vulnerable groups and are high risk of becoming seriously ill if they become infected with COVID-19. Many people have long term mental health conditions and/or use alcohol and other drug which should be considered when designing support for them. They often rely on services for support and are unable to self-isolate on the streets or in communal living environments such as hostels, so there is risk of spreading to their friends and communities. There have been cases such as in Glasgow where both a staff member and person staying at a hostel tested positive for coronavirus – meaning many people were left with nowhere to stay.

Homeless link recommends that Section 189 is amended to include people rough sleeping who become infected with COVID-19. This would mean they are included on the priority list for emergency accommodation alongside others such as pregnant women and the elderly. This will ensure they have a safe place in which to follow Public Health England’s advice on self-isolation, social distancing and hygiene. To this end, the government have announced £3.2 million emergency funding for local authorities to provide rough sleepers with individual, rather than communal living, placements to enable them to self-isolate if necessary. In some areas hotels are being adapted to become homeless shelters (Townsend, Guardian, 2020).

The new Coronavirus Act 2020 has significant implications for households’ at risk of homelessness including supporting people to retain their homes and not face eviction for the minimum of a three month period. 

Ensuring practitioners are informed and supported

Under ordinary circumstances social care and housing professionals and volunteers have a vital role in supporting rough sleepers and should be supported with supervision and relevant training. The current situation magnifies the need for the workforce to have access to up to date information. Homeless link recommends that services establish a screening protocol for all staff, volunteers and others in regular contact with a service. Teams will need guidance on what to look for and training in what to do should they suspect the presence of COVID-19 (Homeless link, 2020). For example, the screening tool in the Homelessness Sector Covid-19 plan (mentioned above) can be used by non-medical personnel when triaging homeless and rough sleeping people who present at services. It entails clear guidance around the identification of symptoms and has been successfully implemented across a number of London boroughs (Kirby 2020).

Older volunteers and workers in hostels are also at risk in this pandemic – so the relevant guidance is essential in protecting the health and wellbeing of the sector (Townsend, Guardian, 2020).

Raising public awareness of the issue of rough sleeping and challenging biases

There is a general need to change the public narrative around homelessness – Bramley and Fitzpatrick’s research demonstrates that homelessness is not random and certain groups are more at risk due to structural biases such as housing affordability and growing up in poverty. They argue for a more contextual approach that shifts the blame away from the individual (Bramley and Fitzpatrick, 2017)

During this difficult time certain biases towards the rough sleeping population are at risk of being appropriated. Homeless link advocate that services should be mindful that COVID-19 is more likely to enter the sector through staff than through clients, so it is important that all local messaging avoids a focus on people using services as the source of any outbreak (Homeless Link, 2020).

An opportunity for policy makers

In line with these key messages, in the current crisis it is evident that the sector is taking critical action to support people sleeping rough. In this fast changing situation services need to be informed and responsive and policies need to bolster frontline workers. The Covid-19 pandemic provides opportunities for reviewing the way we respond to homelessness as a society, so that we can develop real sustainable solutions to homelessness in the long term.

We would love to hear your examples of best practice of how local areas are supporting people sleeping rough and practitioners in these critical circumstances – so please add comments on Twitter @researchIP.


Written by Claire Williams with thanks to Katy Shorten and Jess Wild.

Claire Williams

Claire Williams

Claire works with partners across Children’s and Adults Services and leads on specific topics for the annual delivery programme. Claire joined Research in Practice in 2018 having previously worked in Policy and Partnerships for the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield, where she worked closely with government departments and non-governmental organisations. Claire has previous experience of working in learning support for young offenders and students with disabilities and specific learning difficulties. She has a keen interest in co-production and how the perspectives of people with lived experience can be included in service design and delivery.