Preston City Council housed 108 people within days of a government order back in March to clear the streets of those without a roof over their head, as the coronavirus crisis approached its peak.
That figure included people who had found themselves in need of help because their ad hoc living arrangements - such as sofa surfing - were no longer possible during the pandemic, as well as those who had been living outdoors. They were placed in hotels and vacant student accommodation, both within the city and over the border in South Ribble.
The Lancashire Post understands that more than 90 percent are still receiving help from the authority and other organisations, but a small number – thought to be fewer than ten – have returned to the street.
A city council cabinet meeting heard that the pattern was being repeated in cities around the country.
“This is a choice that they have made – some of them live a transient life,” said Nweeda Khan, cabinet member for communities and social justice.
“Because of the transient lifestyle that…they have been familiar with, they [can] find it very difficult to live in accommodation.
“They are very complex individuals with complex needs and we are doing our best [for them],” Cllr Khan added.
She told the meeting that the authority was now working with housing providers in a bid to secure more of the one-bedroomed properties that are most suitable for people making the move from the street.
A report to cabinet members revealed that a further 22 people did not take up the offer of emergency accommodation when it was first made as Covid levels began to rise.
Meanwhile, the boss of a Preston homelessness charity says that he “won’t give up” on finding a permanent place to stay either for those who have left the shelter with which they were provided or declined it in the first place.
“It’s not one attempt to get them off the streets and then that’s it,” explained Foxton Centre chief executive Jeff Marsh, whose organisation was working with the city council as part of the rough sleeper initiative both before and during the pandemic.
“What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the next – but we just keep trying until we hopefully succeed.
“Part of it is about getting services lined up for people to support them with drug and alcohol issues and also their mental health.
“We are now trying to do that as quickly as possible, as it can help in getting them settled in accommodation – because obviously if their behaviour is all over the place, then accommodation can break down quite rapidly.”
Mr. Marsh praised the way in which different agencies had worked together with the common aim of finding homeless people a permanent place to stay – and he hopes that co-operation will be an equally permanent and positive legacy of the pandemic.
“Along with the city and county council, we did a health audit of the 108 people we housed and what their needs were. We submitted that to our health colleagues and they were quite shocked by the depth of need.
“There were lots of underlying physical health problems – heart and lung disease, you name it.”
Mr. Marsh added that the sobering fact was that people were still “dying young” on the street.
However, the cabinet meeting heard that in spite of initial fears, there have not been any outbreaks of Covid-19 in any of the accommodation used to house Preston’s homeless during the crisis.
LONG-TERM HELP AVERT HOMELESSNESS
The need to arrange appropriate accommodation for people leaving hospital and prison so that they are not discharged to “no fixed abode” was amongst the recommendations of a Preston City Council task group which has been investigating homelessness in the city for more than a year.
The authority has accepted all of the cross-party panel’s suggestions – which also include ensuring access to GP surgeries for homeless people, reviewing affordability criteria applied by housing providers and closer co-operation over commission substance misuse and mental health support.
Task group chair Cllr Carol Henshaw said that there was sometimes a need for housing officers and providers to “think outside of the box” in order to be best able to support those in need of help.
She also called for more housing classed as “affordable” to be built in the city. A quota for around a third of new developments to be made up of homes in that category is not enforceable if the housebuilder can show that it would make the scheme unviable in terms of their profit margins.
“One of the things that came out of the study is the lack of single-person affordable housing options – we have all these lovely apartment blocks and yet there is no affordable housing in there.
“It’s extraordinary that it takes a pandemic to get everybody off the street and into accommodation, but it was also really good that all the people were offered [help],” she said.