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LHF Atlas 2021 – the Story Behind the Data (Part Three) Winter Shelters


For this third part of our blog series following the Atlas release in February 2021 we are taking a look at Winter Shelters, services impacted hugely by the pandemic. We explore data from the Atlas and draw on a report recently published by Housing Justice.


Defining shelters

Shelters are diverse, from very small, volunteer led projects to the larger shelter networks such as Glass Door and Robes who have year-round staff teams. The traditional night or winter shelter model is a basic place to stay for people who would otherwise be rough sleeping or at risk of rough sleeping. They typically consist of communal sleeping areas (usually with a specific area for women to sleep) along with a range of other services including an evening meal. The most common models of shelter, prior to the pandemic, were ‘circuits’ where guests stay in a different location each night of the week, usually in buildings provided by faith communities. Shelters are usually open for several months during the winter period.

As levels of rough sleeping have remained high in recent years, shelters have been increasingly included as as part of the wider ‘homelessness sector’ response. Over recent years many winter shelters have secured new funding from local authorities through the MHCLG’s Rough Sleepers Initiative (RSI). The MHCLG Winter Transformation Fund administered by Homeless Link, and the GLA Equipping Shelters Fund have also represented opportunities for shelters to boost their services e.g. by providing additional paid caseworkers, or improving the physical environments by offering ‘pods’.


The 2020 story

The Atlas shows us at a glance that the number of spaces offers in winter shelters for the 2020/21 season was far lower than that offered in the 2019/20 season; the figure dropped from 806 to 374. So, what’s the story behind this decrease?

Shelters were hugely impacted from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Those open in March 2020, worked with local authorities and regional government to move guests from communal spaces to individual rooms in hotels and hostels, or into self-contained accommodation as part of the Everyone In initiative to prevent Covid-19 transmission. In London, the allocation of hotel rooms to those in shelters was one of the first priorities for the Greater London Authority in keeping people experiencing homelessness safe from the pandemic. Some shelters also contributed to efforts to support people in Everyone In on an ongoing basis – deploying volunteers and staff to assist with support, meal provision etc.

Government guidance in the form of ‘operating principles’ for winter shelters was published by MHCLG in mid-October 2021 confirming that communal sleeping spaces would be very hard to make safe and were to be strongly discouraged in favour of self-contained or single room options. Alongside this, MHCLG announced a £2million fund for faith and voluntary groups to help transform create services that were safe during the pandemic.

Given that communal sleeping spaces are at the very heart of the long-established shelter model, it is remarkable to see that across London 374 spaces were still offered by shelters in 2020/21. The main London map (see image above) shows that the most spaces on offer were in Westminster; these were delivered by Glass Door across two hostels – a complete pivot from the usual model of several circuits run across West London. Examples of smaller projects include the offer in Merton consisting of spaces in a shared flat (five room) and rooms in a Premier Inn (up to ten rooms); again, a shift from a traditional communal circuit model.

Findings from the Housing Justice research show that the higher quality offer of individual rooms, was often felt to be linked to positive outcomes for many guests including: improved health and well-being; improved access to support and casework, and an increased desire to move into more permanent accommodation. In contrast some of the benefits of the communal shelter model around a welcoming, community-based offer with shared meals and social contact were felt to be compromised in self-contained accommodation, especially when coupled with infection control measures.


The future

Some shelters feel that the past season has highlighted the inadequacy of communal sleeping arrangements and that the pandemic has provided the chance to potentially move away from this model and innovate with higher quality provision in single rooms; for others there is a sense that the economic impact of the pandemic, along with factors such as immigration policy leaves holes in our safety net forcing people to sleep outside unless they get the ‘eligibility blind’, humanitarian response offered by shelters.

Guidelines for the coming season have recently been published by MHCLG. They are somewhat less restrictive, but still highlight communal sleeping spaces as a higher risk option which should be avoided where possible, so the 2021/22 season will see more uncertainty, and doubtless further innovation from shelter projects as they adjust to the changing environment.


Data published in the Atlas on shelters relies on support from our colleagues at Housing Justice – we would also like to thank them for their ongoing input and support.


You can access the Atlas at

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