Efforts to find shelter for rough sleepers as the coronavirus pandemic struck revealed that seven times more people lacked overnight accommodation than official figures suggested, according to the National Audit Office.
The public-spending watchdog said the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government snapshot in autumn 2019 suggested there were 4,266 people sleeping rough on any given night. But it said the “Everyone In” scheme, launched to put roofs over the heads of rough sleepers as Covid-19 swept the country gave assistance to 33,000 people.
It said the difference between the snapshot figures and the need demonstrated by Everyone In meant ministers had important lessons to consider if the government was to meet its election manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024.
The NAO acknowledged that while MHCLG did not have a contingency plan for protecting rough sleepers in a pandemic, it had organised swiftly and worked intensively with local authorities to get Everyone In up and running.
It said that by mid-April 2020, 5,400 people had been made an offer of emergency accommodation and that more than 33,000 had been helped by the programme by the end of November, with the majority supported to move into some form of settled accommodation.
The NAO said evidence suggested Everyone In may have avoided more than 20,000 coronavirus infections and 266 deaths overall. It said Office for National Statistics figures showed 16 deaths of homeless people had been linked to Covid-19 up to June 2020, the most up-to-date figures available.
Despite the success of Everyone In, the NAO said there had been a “continued flow” of rough sleepers onto the streets over the summer and autumn of 2020 and observed that it “remains to be seen” whether MHCLG’s current work would reduce the risk of Covid transmission as decisively.
NAO head Gareth Davies said the Everyone In programme had been a considerable achievement, but one that underscored the disconnect between the government’s official estimates of rough-sleeping and the reality.
“For the first time, the scale of the rough sleeping population in England has been made clear, and it far exceeds the government’s previous estimates,” he said.
“Understanding the size of this population, and who needs specialist support, is essential to achieve its ambition to end rough sleeping.”
As the pandemic struck, MHCLG was preparing to carry out a review of its Rough Sleeping Strategy in light of the new target, but due to the prioritisation given to Everyone In, the review did not take place.
Dame Louise Casey, who set up the Labour government’s Rough Sleepers Unit during Tony Blair’s first term as prime minister, was brought back into government to lead an urgent review on ending rough sleeping in February last year.
But she was redirected to work on the homelessness task force responding to the pandemic and stepped down from government shortly after she became a crossbench peer in the summer.
The NAO said there was an “ongoing need” for a review of the government’s rough sleeping strategy to take place because it was “out of step” with the 2024 target.
An MHCLG spokesperson said the department was pleased the NAO had recognised the achievements of the Everyone In programme.
“We recently announced an additional £10m to help accommodate rough sleepers and ensure they are registered with a GP to receive the vaccine, and we will invest £750m next year as part of our commitment to end rough sleeping,” they said.
MHCLG said the £750m figure included £310m to help prevent people from becoming homeless.
“We are focused on providing long-term solutions and accommodation that give rough sleepers the opportunity to rebuild their lives, with grants approved to deliver over 3,000 new long-term homes across England for those sleeping on the streets,” the spokesperson added.
“This is part of a longer-term programme to bring forward 6,000 new homes for rough sleepers, the biggest ever investment in housing of this type.”