Will housing for rough sleepers be a legacy of the COVID 19 pandemic header

A key focus of the AHURI an US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) International Housing Policy Exchange was the response to helping people who are homeless and on the streets (i.e. ‘rough sleepers’) find appropriate housing or shelter during the pandemic. There was strong awareness that outbreaks of COVID in rough sleeping populations could prove devastating to homeless people who already suffer very poor health outcomes, as well as being another conduit for the virus to spread further through the general community.

There is scant evidence available on the rate of COVID-19 amongst homeless people around the world, with some considering low reporting rates evidence that the risk is not as high as originally expected. Studies  have, however, found that homeless people who contract the virus have a higher death rates.

The low reported rate of infection and death is likely an issue with reporting, with few counts recording the housing status of those who have contracted the virus. Also, the populations of homeless people are often hidden from official records and counting in countries across the world.

The participant countries had all instigated some form of temporary housing arrangements, including buying hotel accommodation from the now-closed tourism industry.

International Housing Policy Exchange by Participant Countries

  • United States

    The CARES Act provided an additional US$4 billion for homeless housing providers through HUD. The funding was, in part, used to turn vacant hotels into temporary accommodation, and could also be used by service providers to deliver support services including childcare, education services, employment assistance, outpatient health services, legal services, mental health services, substance abuse treatment services, and transportation.

  • United Kingdom

    There was a very effective rehousing of rough sleepers into emergency, generally self-contained, accommodation—often in hotels—at the beginning of lockdown. The program, ‘Everyone In’, included moving people out of night shelters and other inappropriate non self-contained accommodation. While a moratorium on evictions reduced numbers of families and other households needing temporary accommodation, the flow of rough sleepers continued mainly because of job losses and not all people being eligible for assistance.

    Government funding has not covered all costs, especially for those with no recourse to public funds, such as people with a limited immigration status. There have been policy partnerships between philanthropic organisations and government to deliver bespoke long-term solutions for this group in England.

  • Spain

    Temporary shelters for the homeless were able to house the homeless population and prevent an outbreak among this group, but were dependent on private facilities. Housing authorities negotiated with the tourism apartments’ union and hotels to mobilize some of the empty tourist accommodation for affordable housing and this continues. Temporary housing, built rapidly from shipping containers, has also been used to provide short-term, energy efficient housing for people waiting for social housing.

  • Australia

    Emergency responses, such as using hotel accommodation, almost eliminated rough sleeping in metropolitan and regional cities during the pandemic, extending emergency accommodation to 7,000 people in partnership with front-line service providers. These measures comprised twenty-two policy initiatives implemented by Australian state and territory governments, with approximately A$192m in funding committed. Initiatives included domestic violence emergency accommodation delivered through front-line service providers. For example, the Victorian state government provided the largest quantum of funding (A$36.4m), supporting short-term accommodation needs for survivors of family violence and supporting women and children escaping family violence.

  • Ireland

    Good cooperation between local authorities and NGO homeless organisations led to the sourcing of additional accommodation (often former short-term holiday apartments) and partnering with health experts in how to allocate this accommodation to those most in need. The fast intervention to find emergency accommodation for people in hotels was effective – people were housed in a matter of days, rather than the months that it can sometimes take to assist someone to find housing prior to the crisis. Many homelessness shelters acted unilaterally to house people in emergency accommodation.

    Rapid COVID-19 testing was critical and medical interventions were fast tracked, particularly in the areas of addiction and mental health. The overall health of the homeless population in Dublin has improved during COVID-19 and the number of homeless households has decreased.

  • Japan

    Hotels were used by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to house 2,000 people in Japan and community organisations worked to provide shelter to those sleeping rough. Access to one-off COVID-19 relief payment was more difficult for homeless people, because of the requirement to provide a fixed address.

  • New Zealand

    Prompt measures were implemented to house the homeless in motels and transitional housing.  Community agencies and Housing First providers working closely with Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and Kāinga Ora - homes and communities.

There was strong awareness that outbreaks of COVID in rough sleeping populations could prove devastating to homeless people who already suffer very poor health outcomes, as well as being another conduit for the virus to spread further through the general community.

Long term solutions for rough sleepers

The transition from the crisis response has varied, depending on the rates of COVID-19 in each country. Successful development of arrangements to prevent people returning to homelessness has presented a challenge.

The Policy Exchange revealed some examples of this variation, for example, in the UK where funding was provided for the ‘Next Steps’ program and additional support for rough sleepers of the 2020/21 winter were funded. However, while temporary housing solutions have been quite effective, money is also needed to provide supports to maintain housing. Assertive treatments alongside housing support requires a long term funding commitment. In London the transition away from providing crisis accommodation saw an overall increase in rough-sleepers by December 2020 has seen many people return to street homelessness. One participant in the round table estimated there may be as many as 15,000 people begging on London’s streets in late 2020.

In Canada, some hotels have been leased for two year time frames, while others have been purchased outright for transitional housing. The Federal Government committed funding to rapid housing and to buy more permanent housing for homeless people, and to aim to eliminate homelessness within ten years.

The US has a large scale homelessness problem with over 500,000 experiencing homelessness, and approximately one third of those sleeping completely unsheltered on any given night. HUD increased funding of the Emergency Shelter Grant program from US$300 million to US$4 billion and increased the scope of assistance that could be provided, renaming it the ‘Emergency Solutions Grant’. This allowed for different types of housing (e.g. hotels and motels).

In Victoria (Australia), the state most impacted by COVID-19, extended emergency support for up to 18 months. Launch Housing, a community organisation, is promoting a functional zero approach—with one outcome of the emergency response being that now many of those sleeping rough are known to services and accurate lists of those requiring help has been compiled. This may prove an effective way to end street homelessness. NSW and Victoria have also released new strategies to address homelessness in the long-term, Together Home and the From Homelessness to a Home Initiative (H2H).

This is the second in a four-part AHURI Brief series outlining the learnings from the AHURI-HUD led International Housing Policy Exchange in late 2020. The Policy Exchange opened a dialogue on international COVID-19 housing policy responses, with participants from Austria, Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. It considered emerging evidence about the impact of the pandemic, and how each country was approaching housing issues generated or exacerbated by it.