‘Will you help me’ – The stories of rough sleepers taken off the streets during coronavirus lockdown
- Credit: RENNY HAMMOND
Dozens of people living on Suffolk’s streets now have a roof over their heads thanks to the coronavirus lockdown – with even the most reluctant of rough sleepers accepting emergency housing offers.
More than 120 homeless people have been put up in five new temporary shelters and hotels since Covid-19 restrictions were imposed in March, an investigation by this newspaper and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found.
Nine people have so far been asked to leave emergency accommodation because of their behaviour, while those with live addictions are being housed, with support packages in place.
Just shy of £30,000 has been given to Suffolk’s district and borough councils – from a £3.2million Government pot - to provide emergency housing for homeless people during the crisis.
East and West Suffolk councils received the lion’s share of government cash – there are typically more rough sleepers in these areas – with nearly £10,000 each.
Yet the measures, set to last until June, will set Suffolk’s local authorities back around £841,000.
And questions remain over what happens post lockdown – with volunteers citing this as their “biggest fear” – but talks are under way within councils to establish longer-term support.
‘When Covid came along, she reached out for help’
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Sharon*, in her 30s, came to the attention of outreach workers in Ipswich two years ago.
“She’s probably been on the street for longer than that, her family lives in Ipswich,” said Renny Hammond, an outreach worker for the Ipswich Housing Action Group (IHAG).
He makes daily trips around town speaking to people sleeping rough.
“She’s always quite polite and we offer her help, she says she’ll come in for breakfast, and she won’t turn up.
“That’s been going on for a couple of years, we’ve tried to offer her accommodation.
“When Covid came along, she was admittedly one of the last people to be housed, but she was asking, ‘Will you help me?’
“So that was great, it’s easy to help someone when they want help. It’s very difficult to help someone who doesn’t want help because they have an addiction and their mental health is so chaotic, they are afraid of being accommodated sometimes. They are so used to moving around.”
He added: “Obviously this is temporary accommodation so we’re aware that it’s going to end at some point.”
Volunteers are now looking at ways of helping Sharon through her drug addiction, as she is a class A user, and to eventually provide her with suitable, longer-term accommodation.
Martin*, who often sleeps in town centre doorways, also has an addiction problem and suffers with mental health issues.
Despite him often exhibiting “chaotic behaviour”, he too accepted the offer of emergency accommodation.
Rough sleepers still on the streets have moved further out of Ipswich town centre, Mr Hammond said, making use of apartment blocks, stairwells and parks in good weather. Now no-one is in town, there is nobody to beg from.
Some are now sofa-surfing – having managed to persuade friends who would not, without Covid-19, have tolerated addictions and challenging behaviour.
“Although Covid-19 has been dreadful, it has challenged some people’s behaviour and it’s quite frightening for a lot of people,” Mr Hammond added.
“People who are rough sleeping they get a lot of their news from the public and each other, they don’t necessarily have a whole picture like we do, they’re unlikely to have a smartphone.
“It can be quite frightening – there’s this virus going around, it’s killing people.
“With Covid-19, because it’s totally new to everybody, some people who were entrenched in a cycle of addiction have taken the opportunity to have this temporary accommodation who otherwise would not have accepted it and wouldn’t talk to us.”
*Names have been changed
What happens next?
“The worry for us is, what happens when the funding stops,” said Mr Hammond.
“It’s not going to be there forever. We know what the housing options are – and we need to move people on to more suitable accommodation for the long term.”
Jools Ramsey, chief executive at IHAG, said councils did an “amazing job” setting up emergency accommodation when lockdown began.
Usually a hub of activity where people can receive support, the Chapman Centre in Black Horse Lane is shut due to the restrictions, so volunteers have been working remotely.
Providing phone support, outreach workers have also been supplying boredom packs and food parcels to people in hotels, and continuing IHAG’s money advice service.
But Ms Ramsey said she also fears what happens next: “Our biggest fear is that the people that have been accommodated are simply asked to leave.
“You’re putting the issue back to where it was six or seven weeks ago.
“If we’ve been able to prove right now that we can get most people experiencing homelessness into safe accommodation then surely, we must be able to work harder and make that a more permanent arrangement.
She added: “The reality is there isn’t enough property available for us to do that, otherwise we would have done it before.”
‘Work will continue after the crisis’
Gavin Fisk, of the Suffolk-wide housing taskforce, said councils “fully appreciate” support from hoteliers and other housing providers.
“We have found the lockdown restrictions are very challenging for some, especially those in the community that are vulnerable or who have chaotic lifestyles,” he added.
“This has unfortunately meant that a few rough sleepers have chosen not to take advantage of the offers of temporary or more long-term sustainable accommodation and support being offered.
“Within Suffolk there were already several outreach schemes in place prior to the pandemic.
“They continue to offer support throughout the crises and their work will continue after restrictions have been lifted.”
For help and support, visit the Shelter website.