By Catherine Pepinster
Faith organisations are working against the clock to persuade the government to abandon punitive restrictions on benefits for some homeless people and increase help for housing and feeding rough sleepers this Christmas.
An estimated quarter of people living on the streets are migrants who have lost their jobs in the Covid-19 pandemic and have little in the way of welfare safety nets. Despite paying tax and national insurance, migrant workers from outside the EU are not normally eligible for benefits such as universal credit and housing allowance. But during lockdown they were funded to receive the same temporary accommodation provision as everyone else. However, the system — known as “No Recourse to Public Benefits” — will come back into force on New Year’s Eve.
Last week a delegation of faith leaders delivered a Christmas card to housing secretary Robert Jenrick to urge that all homeless people should have access to support until the end of the pandemic, regardless of where they are from. The event was organised by the London Citizens group, which says about 25 per cent of people on the streets are migrants. Many of them are people who were working in the capital’s hospitality industry, including restaurants, pubs and hotels, which have been severely affected by lockdowns.
Among those who delivered the housing secretary’s card was Fr Dominic Robinson, parish priest of Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception, in Mayfair, and chairman of the Roman Catholic Westminster Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission.
“We are seeing a very urgent situation,” he said. “Businesses have had to lay people off and we are seeing more and more people who have lost their jobs and are finding themselves destitute.
“The hope has to be that there will be a concrete change in the rules so that people are helped for the duration of the pandemic.”
Fr Dominic has been working closely with other Christian denominations and faiths in central London to help those made homeless by Covid-19’s economic fallout. Since March, the government’s Everyone In policy provided £3.2m in extra funding that ensured 15,000 homeless people across the country were housed during the pandemic, regardless of immigration status. Through the policy, the majority of rough sleepers were moved into hotels and B&Bs with charities helping to run the accommodation and organise meals.
Now, with social distancing regulations limiting Crisis at Christmas’s usual seasonal provision in sizeable halls and many conventional night shelters shut for the same reason, so-called “Covid hotels” and the services offered by faith groups are proving a lifeline to people on the streets.
Depaul, a homelessness charity with Catholic roots, has been closely involved in running hotel provision since the “Everyone In” policy began in the spring. Its chief executive, Mike Thiedke, said: “We have found that young people have especially been affected by the pandemic. About 55 per cent of our clients have lost their jobs in lockdown and they come to us with a complex array of issues, including mental health problems.”
Depaul is one of four charities working with the Mayor of London’s Winter Rough Sleeping Fundraising Campaign — the others are akt, Centrepoint, and New Horizons Youth Centre — to ensure more vulnerable people get inside during the harsh winter weather.
Depaul is also working in Manchester. There, mayor Andy Burnham, has expressed his enthusiasm for seeing how lessons can be learnt from the way people worked together during the pandemic and used to find rapid solutions to housing for homeless people.
Mr Thiedke said: “Some people might think we have a static population in the hotels but we are successfully helping people to move on to a more permanent solution to their homelessness. The main issue is finding the right accommodation for the right person at the right time. The vulnerable people we work with are not merely ‘roofless’, they are homeless. They need safe and affordable accommodation that works for them specifically so that they can create a more permanent home.”
But not every rough sleeper is indoors as the weather gets colder and Christmas approaching. In central London Fr Dominic is working with volunteers to provide meals to those still bedding down outside while at the Anglican church of St James, Piccadilly, rector the Rev Lucy Winkett and her team of volunteers are getting ready to serve a socially distanced Christmas lunch in their church on Christmas Day. As well as 40 guests sitting down in the nave, another 40 meals — turkey with all the trimmings — will be takeways for those recently housed.
Winkett’s team has long focused on those with particularly complex needs. “For some being offered a hotel place with people they don’t know, or being given a shared room, is frightening,” she says. “They might not trust the authorities or they think the street is safer.”
Faith organisations in central London, including Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, St Martin-in-the-Fields, St Patrick’s, Soho, the Cardinal Hume Centre, Notre Dame de France and The Passage, as well as Depaul, St James’s and Farm Street parish, all work together but also try not to replicate special provision. They also work closely with Westminster City Council which has now appointed a faith groups and volunteer network co-ordinator.
Covid-19 has made the use of volunteers more complicated as they need to be protected from the virus, but help is still coming through. In Piccadilly, one hotel is putting up volunteers from St James’s so that they can attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve and then return in the morning to start cooking lunch.
Restaurants in the capital are offering to cook for other groups of homeless people and Fr Dominic reports that many who have cancelled holidays elsewhere because of London’s tier 4 regulations are offering to help.
“There is a strong sense of solidarity,” he said. “Covid-19 is changing how we think about service for others. People now think ‘that could have been me’ when they hear how people lost their jobs and their homes.”
At Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, minister Simon Woodman says his congregation has changed the way they engage with homeless people too. “We used to offer a free lunch on a Sunday while members of the congregation paid. Then we asked everyone to pay 50p. A lot of homeless people preferred that system. They felt they were treated the same,” he said.
Woodman has focused on activism during the pandemic, succeeding in getting public toilets — a vital service for people on the street — reopened in Westminster after they were closed in the spring. He has since been campaigning on the need to change government thinking on No Recourse to Public Funds.
Back in Piccadilly, Lucy Winkett has noticed the stark contrast between the lights and glitter of the Christmas decorations — especially angels that appear to be flying along the street — and the difficulties that homeless people face. That contrast resonates with people at Christmas, she says. “You have all these lights and then people in peril on the pavement. And the winter makes rough sleeping even more difficult. People can die out in the cold.”
While more people’s attention turns to homelessness at Christmas, for the faith organisations working with homeless people, Christmas is an opportunity to raise funds, but the work goes on all year around. The Salvation Army, which is running a huge campaign for donations this year, provides more than 3,000 places for people every night in supported housing across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland throughout the year. And like other faith charities, it is focusing not just on immediate problems but also the long term with training in life skills and help with addiction.
It runs both supported housing accommodation and homeless drop-ins that offer takeaway meals, blankets and hygiene items to people living on the streets, while outreach and early intervention teams help people find accommodation and support.
Its residential centres remained open throughout the pandemic, but with staff using PPE and residents in bubbles.
“We switched from communal meals to providing freshly prepared takeaway meals for people to eat in their own rooms,” a spokesman said. There have also been Covid-safe activities. Its Swan Lodge Lifehouse in Sunderland has run a virtual pantomime, virtual bake-off, and Christmas choir for residents.
It has also made alternative provision where traditional night shelters are unable to operate because of social distancing. For example, in Thanet, Kent, working with the local authority, the Salvation Army transformed its night shelter into an 18-bedroom residential centre for rough sleepers open 24 hours a day.
Another charity with faith roots, the YMCA, is also working across Britain to help people struggling to find a home this Christmas. According to YMCA Exeter, the 18-25s have particularly been hit by housing problems caused by family conflicts and relationship breakdowns linked to the pandemic. They have found people from other parts of the West Country flocking to Exeter, believing they have more chance of help in a city centre.
Real people: The homeless, and who they are
Abdul arrived in the UK 18 years ago, working in a number of jobs and also spent the summer of 2012 being an Olympic Games volunteers. He is now working towards an MA in international development. His work has dried up and has no home. He became known to Fr Dominic Robinson’s Farm Street parish by coming to its lunch service. He is from outside the EU and has immigrant status, and when he was working he paid tax and national insurance. At the moment he is getting some benefits but if the No Recourse to Public Funds regulations kick in again on 31 December, he will be destitute.
George has been living on the streets for a very long time and has been sleeping on the pews of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, for 15 years. He was wary of moving into accommodation but when the coronavirus emerged, he was very afraid of it, so he moved into a hotel provided through the Everyone In scheme. It proved a catalyst for him and has now found help to sort out accommodation. Outreach workers have also helped him to resolve immigration issues. He recently returned to St James’s to thank the team there for helping him and treating him as an individual. He particularly appreciated them knowing him by name.
Sarah, 24, lived with her boyfriend and his family for seven years but tensions in lockdown caused them to split. Her mother had died when she was nine and so she had nowhere to go. The crisis also caused depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder to surface. She tried to secure local authority housing but was outbid by prospective tenants. With no deposit she could not secure private rented accommodation. She turned to YMCA Exeter and found accommodation through its projects in the city.
Farm Street Church, Mayfair
St James’s Church, Piccadilly