The Mayor of London has warned that homeless people may have to choose between sleeping rough during the winter or the risk of catching Covid-19 in a communal shelter unless there is funding and guidance from the Government.
In a letter to Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, Sadiq Khan called on the Government to provide funding and guidance for those working with homeless people to protect them from cold temperatures and Covid-19.
In a typical year, winter night shelters start to open in November as temperatures fall, often providing communal sleeping spaces in church halls or community buildings.
These night shelters – run by charities, voluntary organisations and faith groups – hosted around 700 people in the capital last year.
Mr Khan said that while there is an exception to the rule of six for voluntary and charitable services, opening these communal shelters as normal would expose service users and staff to a substantial risk of infection.
He added it would also be contrary to the advice given to hotels and hostels during the pandemic, which were ordered to close dormitory rooms, and that homeless people need to be given the same protection as other sectors of society.
In a statement, Mr Khan said: “It would simply be callous and inhumane to tell rough sleepers that the price of staying off the streets this winter could be catching Covid-19.
“Homeless people deserve safety and protection from Covid as much as anyone – this is particularly the case given they often have underlying health conditions.”
The mayor said he was increasingly concerned at the Government’s “complacency and inaction” as it has not published any guidance on communal sleeping or provided funding for Covid-safe alternatives.
Recent figures show more than 900 people are sleeping rough on the streets of the capital.
Mr Khan called for the Government to fully fund safe accommodation and provide guidance to local authorities and voluntary groups on making shelters Covid-secure.
In the letter to Mr Jenrick, he said: ‘It is vital that the Government fully funds self-contained accommodation like hotels which we know is the safest way to protect those who would otherwise be sleeping rough during this period.
‘In addition, to ensure the safe operation of winter shelters, it is imperative that the Government publishes guidance on making these Covid-secure without further delay, and that the rules which are put in place ensure that vulnerable Londoners who have been sleeping rough are afforded the same protections as the rest of society.’
The mayor also warned that without a robust plan, the Government risks undermining the work done earlier in the pandemic when nearly 1,700 homeless people were housed.
He continued: ‘As we see escalating prevalence in London, there would appear to be no justification for accommodating rough sleepers in the high-risk accommodation which is far from Covid-secure that we closed in March.
‘We also know there is a viable alternative, with hotels readily available, that will protect this vulnerable group.
‘It is therefore incumbent on the Government to fully fund local authorities and the (Greater London Authority) to make this accommodation available, so we can save lives this winter.
‘If such funding is not forthcoming, the Government will be knowingly exposing rough sleepers and support staff to much greater risk of infection than other sectors of the population.’
Picture: People walking past a homeless man in London. (Nick Ansell/PA).