‘It’s so wet and cold out here’: Homeless during a pandemic

NN Journal spent a morning last week speaking to the people sleeping on the streets of Northampton

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By Natalie Bloomer

It’s 8am and a group of four people are waking up in a cold shop doorway on Abington Street in Northampton. Among them are three men and one woman. A few days ago they were able to seek shelter under the SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency Protocol) provision which is triggered if the weather is predicted to be particularly bad. But on this day it’s not quite cold enough for that to kick in and so they have to rely on their sleeping bags to keep warm.

Lisa (not her real name) has been on the streets for around ten months. 

“It’s so wet and cold out here at the moment. It’s really horrible,” she says. “We’ve had a lockdown for more than a week now but they haven’t opened the hotels yet. If they open them again we’d be in there straight away.”

She is referring to the ‘Everyone In’ scheme which saw thousands of homeless people moved into hotel rooms and other accommodation during the first lockdown. On both a local and national level the scheme was seen as a success with funds being received quickly by local authorities and people being helped off the streets.

For some, the help they received during that time has been life-changing - people who have spent years sleeping rough are now housed. In Northampton, the county’s rough sleeping hot-spot, the council says 200 people were moved into settled housing.

But that hasn’t been the case for everyone and for those who, for whatever reason, have fallen between the cracks, life on the streets has been even harder during a pandemic. Many services have been forced to scale back or adapt their usual support and with libraries and many shops closed there are fewer places where they can seek shelter during the day.

“It was great during ‘Everyone In’, Clair Chappers, who volunteers with the homeless charity Project 16:15 and other groups, says. “But recently we’ve seen more and more people back out. There are faces I haven’t seen before and I know of at least six women who are sleeping out here.

“Last week we were serving meals to between 28-31 people in the evenings and that’s just the ones sleeping around the town centre. One night we actually ran out of food and had to go into McDonalds to buy some.”

It is almost impossible for homeless people to follow Covid guidance. They can’t stay at home, they can’t wash their hands regularly and social distancing is rarely a priority when many will sleep together for warmth and protection. 

“We’re all lying here in sleeping bags together and eating food we keep on the floor, we’re not protected from the virus at all,” Lisa says. “He [her friend asleep beside her] has got a mask but he can’t wash it so what’s the point?”

Clair and founder of Project 16:15 Stan Robertson pull a trolley loaded with sausage baps and hot drinks further into town. As they stop to pour a coffee for someone sitting on the pavement, they are told about concerns for a man who is normally out here at night. The group usually sees him every morning but he hasn’t been here for the past two days and some members of the local homeless community are worried about his welfare.

“He was last seen on Saturday morning,” Stan says. “The guys are saying he picked up his belongings and walked away from where he was sleeping and hasn’t been seen since.”

He says he may have just moved on but the charity flags him as potentially missing just in case. 

The next person that is offered breakfast is one of the women mentioned above. She’s French and can speak very little English which makes it hard to communicate with her. Stan says they’ve tried using Google Translate but it isn’t really much easier. There is another woman who will not engage with services and a man who has mental health problems and struggles to eat certain foods.

“It can be difficult to have the right food for him every day. There are lots of things he just can’t eat,” he says. 

The team witnesses complex and varied issues every morning. The people out here do not all fit into the same category. There are people with addiction problems, people who are struggling with their mental health and others who have simply lost their way and are not sure how to get back on the right track.

Research suggests ‘Everyone In’ may have avoided more than 20,000 infections of Covid-19 and 266 deaths. But the policy also revealed the scale of rough sleeping in England. The National Audit Office says 33,139 people were helped by the scheme, however the government’s annual count of rough sleepers in 2019 estimated just 4,266 people were sleeping rough on any given night - the need was eight times greater than officials had believed.

At the end of last week Northampton Borough Council announced ‘Everyone In’ will be restarted in the town for a period of ten weeks between January 19th and March 31st. People known to be sleeping rough will be offered accommodation, food and support at the University of Northampton’s halls of residence. Arrangements are also being made to ensure that people are registered with a GP so they can be offered the Covid-19 vaccine. 

Northampton’s Single Homeless Forum said:

“During the 10 weeks that ‘Everyone In’ is operating all of the rough sleepers who are accommodated will be provided with free toiletries, fresh clothing, a regular laundry service, a daily cooked evening meal and access to a joined-up treatment and support service.”

The news is a welcome relief to both those sleeping on the streets and the organisations that help them but as has been seen in Northampton between the two lockdowns, when help such as this is withdrawn the problem quickly returns.

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