Helping Westminster's rough sleepers turn their lives around

The following article, written by Westminster City Council Leader Rachael Robathan, originally published by themj.co.uk

The pandemic has affected so many people in a negative way, that it is hard to talk about upsides to the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, as life starts slowly to return to normal for many of us, it is becoming clear that there have been significant changes for people who found themselves in difficult circumstances sleeping rough in central London. Since March, more than 240 rough sleepers have been supported off the streets of Westminster and into settled accommodation with the ongoing support that will hopefully give them the leg-up they need to turn their lives around.

As the lockdown was announced and the Government called on councils to help rough sleepers off the streets, Westminster placed a total of 266 rough sleepers in emergency accommodation, typically hotels and self-contained apartments, to keep them safe from the pandemic. Central Government funding was welcome in the efforts to help vulnerable Westminster’s rough sleepers remain safe.

During this time, our outreach teams also signposted 400 more into hotels provided by the GLA and we already had 400 people in our hostels.Happily, there have been no outbreaks or COVID-19 related deaths amongst those we have helped off the streets and into emergency accommodation. Nationally the rates of COVID-19 related deaths among the homeless remain low compared to other countries, especially the US.

Despite being safe from the pandemic, the people in emergency accommodation had no obvious way out, but working with partners including St Mungo’s, The Connection at St Martin’s, The Passage and West London Mission, more than 240 people have already been moved by Westminster into more sustainable longer-term housing, including around 50 people into council housing, while others have been helped into private rented sector properties.

Westminster is the first London borough to start moving rough sleepers out of emergency accommodation on such a scale. Currently only around 30 people with complex needs or immigration status remain in hotels while the council works with central Government and charity partners to find the right solution to help them in the longer term.

The pandemic gave our officers an unexpected and unprecedented opportunity to work with rough sleepers not only to offer them a home but also support them with the services they need to start over and live independently. Housing people in private accommodation – largely hotels that were closed to their usual customers - encouraged those who were previously reluctant to accept help and work with us.   

Our housing and rough sleeping teams went into overdrive, finding accommodation from our own stock and the PRS, while also working with our Westminster Employment Service to provide skills training and help ex-rough sleepers find and keep jobs. Our teams worked with local employers such as the Westminster Property Association and Veolia to find roles for people we were supporting.

We have continued to provide other vital services such as mental health or drug and alcohol support which does not end once someone is housed. Whether in supported housing or the private rented sector, we continue to provide wrap around support to help people keep their tenancy and access the services they need.

However, we cannot be complacent, as the reality is that rough sleepers clearly remain in Westminster. Our latest street count shows that at around 180, the number of people sleeping on Westminster’s streets is just over half of what it was this time last year. However, there is concern that numbers may rise again as the economic effects of the pandemic become clearer in the coming months.

Our outreach teams continue to work on the streets every day to try and help people find a route away from rough sleeping. With COVID-19 restrictions still impacting night shelters, for instance, it won’t be easy, but we are confident that we can make a sizeable contribution to help as many people as possible find a way off the streets. As we move into the next phase of our response, we are committed to ensuring we offer as many resources as necessary to support people away from rough sleeping. Just one example is our work with Non-UK EEA nationals to ensure they find sustainable work that can lead into having their own home.

Going forward, we are determined that the lessons learned from the pandemic will shape our services for the future. A comprehensive review is planned to look at issues such as whether we can phase out shared accommodation, such as hostels, to give people their independent space as the best foundation to support them away from the streets permanently. We’re keen to explore if a Housing First model could work in Westminster.

For most people this year has been a year like no other, but hope that at least some people will look back at 2020 as a time when they were given a chance to start turning their lives around.