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The street outreach service that has been a lifeline for rough sleepers in London during the pandemic

After delivering vital support to homeless people through the pandemic, St Mungo’s Westminster Street Outreach Service has been shortlisted for the London Homelessness Awards.

The street outreach service that has been a lifeline for rough sleepers in London during the pandemic

When the Covid-19 lockdown was first implemented, the universal confusion and uncertainty experienced was present amongst people sleeping rough in London.

The service, which has been running since 2018, and is commissioned by Westminster City Council to work 365 days a year to support anyone rough sleeping in the borough to find a safe and sustainable route away from the streets, was at the coalface of meeting this anxiety.

“People were terrified,” explains Service Manager Claire Hopkins.

“On that first day of lockdown, we had 250 people queuing outside our offices at 10am asking for support in finding accommodation. At first, we weren’t prepared for the scale of the demand, and our team had their own fears about the risks of the virus, but we adapted quickly.”

Alongside the immediate need for safe accommodation at the start of lockdown, Ms Hopkins notes that:

“We were seeing people from every walk of life. It might have been someone who had lost their home due to the pandemic, or a long-term rough sleeper with more complex needs.

What was striking was the speed at which the situation on the streets turned into a humanitarian crisis. People suddenly had nowhere to go for water, nowhere to find food.

Even something we take for granted like charging a phone, with shops closed homeless people couldn’t do that, just when access to health and benefits was becoming even more digital.”

Against the backdrop of this sudden humanitarian emergency, the Street Outreach Service team responded by working with partners at the GLA and other charities in health triages, as part of the government’s “Everyone In” scheme.

Rather than running services based on who was “eligible”, the scheme sought to provide accommodation and support to all those facing homelessness at the start of the pandemic, based on their “vulnerability”. The Street Outreach Team would find, look after and support those people into accommodation.

The St Mungo’s team achieved remarkable success. From the start of the pandemic until 31st March 2021, the team achieved 1632 accommodation outcomes, including securing permanent residences, council homes, Housing First flats, private rented sector accommodation or rooms across 27 emergency hotels.

This led to the lowest ever recorded street count numbers seen in Westminster – 106 in March 2021.

Aside from the sheer volume of people housed by the service, what Ms Hopkins appears most proud of is the depth and efficacy of the support given to service users.

“Prior to the pandemic, the world asked homeless people to meet criteria in order to access accommodation. What we’ve been able to do, through focusing on providing accommodation and then personalised, trauma-informed support, is make services fit them rather than the other way round.”

Mental and physical health support, debt, housing and immigration advice, and even talking therapies to guard against loneliness, were all provided by what Ms Hopkins describes as “an incredible team with great passion and resilience.”

They also worked with the Felix Project and the Evening Standard’s Food for London Now campaign to ensure that no one went hungry.

If successful at the London Homelessness Awards, Ms Hopkins is keen to use the cash prize to ensure that those who have been placed in accommodation have bespoke support packages when they move into permanent accommodation, to ensure said accommodation is sustainable.

“The key lesson we’ve learnt from the pandemic response is that quickly provided, self-contained accommodation works as a strategy for solving homelessness. All of us are huge supporters of the Housing First model, and our efforts during the pandemic demonstrated how successful it is. It would be great to see it expanded around the country.”

The London Homelessness Awards, taking place on 14th October at Union Chapel, is being run in partnership with the Evening Standard’s Homeless Fund.

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