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For many areas use of communal night shelters are likely to be confined to the pre-covid past. That’s the ambition in the North West, where the Manchester Homeless Partnership – an alliance of statutory, voluntary and business organisations - has set a new vision for the future of emergency accommodation in the city. Their powerful film, featuring those who have direct experience of accessing night shelters, demonstrates exactly why it is important to rethink how we provide emergency accommodation. These experiences underpin a new set of minimum standards that accompany the vision of the Partnership.

On 19th July the Government published its updated Operating Principles for Commissioners and Providers of Night Shelter Projects. Their position is to further encourage self-contained models but falls short of specifically discouraging or ruling out shared sleeping models. It emphasises that final decisions need to be taken locally with public health and local authorities. It states:

“Providers and commissioners of night shelters should consider whether they can provide self-contained accommodation options. For clear safety reasons individual rooms and individual washing facilities should be the aim to appropriately protect individuals from communicable diseases such as COVID-19.”

But it goes on to state “However, we know that local circumstances may mean that there are occasions where a local area decides to put in place communal models to prevent people sleeping rough, particularly in extreme weather”.

The guidance emphasises that, should there be a decision to go ahead with communal sleeping models, projects should work closely with public health colleagues as well as local authorities, consider how they can encourage and support guests to get both vaccinations, think carefully about those who are in the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ group and have appropriate plans for isolation of guests. Government guidance for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) was also published on 19th July and this highlights the increased risk to people who are CEV of having closer contact with people who may be infected. Many people using homelessness services and sleeping rough are likely to be in this CEV group. 

The Government also funded the Homelessness Winter Transformation Fund 2021/22 which launched earlier this year for community and faith groups to develop new models of winter provision. The fund for this winter has increased to £3m and for the first time this includes a £1m capital funding stream to help cover the costs of adapting buildings. It will deliberately  not fund shared sleeping models.  The fund is being allocated again through Homeless Link and Housing Justice with awards due to be notified over the summer.

The Healthy London Partnership (a partnership of health bodies, GLA and local government to improve health and well-being in London) hosted a webinar on 19th July on managing Covid infections in homeless accommodation settings with health experts including Professors Andrew Hayward and Al Storey.  This highlighted the importance of providers continuing their infection control measures to protect residents and staff in hostels and other temporary accommodation settings from the more infectious variant of Covid-19, particularly in light of the easing of many of the remaining restrictions. St Mungo’s confirmed their intentions to continue managing their settings largely unchanged too.  Much of this is set out in  covid guidance for hostel commissioners and providers.

Housing Justice (HJ) commissioned independent research of organisations within their Night Shelter Network to gather information on what they did last winter in place of their usual shelter model and their future plans. A New Season For Night Shelters - Research Report for Housing Justice by Juliette Hough and Becky Rice (June 2021) showed that project models last winter were varied including hotels and hostel accommodation (some with shared facilities and some self-contained), single room accommodation in shared houses, temporary pods/modular accommodation and provision of alternative non-accommodation support.  

The headline findings of the research make for interesting reading; almost everyone interviewed – guests, volunteers, co-ordinators and partners including local authorities – strongly believed that 24-hour access, self-contained or single room emergency accommodation was more desirable than the communal, night-time-only model - providing privacy and stability for guests, and easier to access support and employment. It was also more accessible for women. However it was more expensive, with increased accommodation and staffing costs, and usually meant that fewer people could be supported. 840 bed spaces were made available across the provider network in England between October 2020 and March 2021 compared to 2,611 in 2019/20 - a 69% decrease. HJ estimate that providing a shared house or hotel cost a minimum of £50,000-£85,000 for three months.

In terms of future provision, the research found that several local authorities stated intentions to move away from funding communal night shelter provision but the report concludes there is no single, clear dominant model yet emerging for emergency winter provision moving forward - plans continue to be a mix of returning to the previous night shelter model, retaining elements of the new model (fixed-location, 24-hour access, self-contained accommodation), not running a shelter and expanding in particular into floating support.

HJ has published a briefing note for providers of night shelters on the new operating principles. Homeless Link will also update its guidance resources later this year for those involved in planning or providing winter or severe weather (often known as SWEP) provision and we also have resources available on vaccinations for people in homelessness settings including a range of materials produced by Groundswell.

Homeless Link’s new strategy says everyone should be able to open and close their own front door and feel safe and secure in their own accommodation. Clearly communal shelters would not meet this basic standard, however there is an argument that in some very specific circumstances, such as when people have No Recourse to Public Funds, or where individuals sleeping rough are reluctant to engage with ‘the system’ – there is still a role for shelters. However the situation with Covid means that even under these circumstances we must do everything in our power to prevent the spread of infection, and all the evidence points to avoiding shared air facilities and having adequate provision for regular handwashing and other hygiene measures. And of course, as the Manchester video reminds us, there is the issue of privacy and dignity for those people forced to use communal shelters as the only viable option. Perhaps more than ever before, providers and commissioners will need to ask themselves some serious questions about what to do for the best given an unprecedented set of competing priorities.