Homeless people in Westminster fear for survival during coronavirus crisis

By Owen Sheppard

Rough sleepers are fearful that large numbers of homeless people could be at risk of dying during the coronavirus pandemic.

With few resources for keeping clean, sleeping well and eating healthily, some rough sleepers fear having a weak immune system will make them vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

Their concerned words came after a report by Inside Housing magazine that Glass Door, a charity which provides shelters in London, was unable to help a homeless person who had recently returned from northern Italy.

Paul James, 56, has been sleeping rough around Victoria Station for two months, said: “It can be difficult getting into shelters. There was a case of someone not getting into one because they had recently been to Italy.

Paul James, a rough sleeper in Victoria, central London.

“What concerns me is the thought of being more susceptible to getting the virus because you’re not eating, and then not knowing you have the virus and spreading it.

“I get that systems are strained, I get the NHS are doing the best they can, but what about the homeless people? The cull on the homeless could be astronomical.”

Mr James, a former football coach who moved to London from Toronto, Canada, added: “The other side of homeless people is that they are resilient, they are tough. I feel aches and pains all the time. You’re sleeping on concrete and you shiver. So it’s normal, you just get on with it.

“You wouldn’t notice it [the virus] so you could be incubating it and you wouldn’t find out.”

Central London is becoming a hotspot for confirmed cases of the disease. As of March 20, the borough of Westminster had 78 cases while Kensington and Chelsea had 57

Research in 2019 found that about 2,500 people were sleeping on the streets of Westminster that year.

Gary Moulden, 46, and originally from Acton in West London, said since the outbreak: “Some people look at us as a form of disease.”

He added that it’s “becoming more difficult to get money off people” since workers have been based at home.

“In the last few weeks, we have noticed a decline in people,” said Mr Moulden, who has been sleeping rough for a year.

“We’ve noticed it at Victoria Station, especially around 4pm… it’s like it’s a Sunday,”

On March 17, the Government announced that £3.2 million will be made available to councils across the country to provide extra shelter for rough sleepers who need to self-isolate.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick MP, said: “The initial funding that I’ve announced today will ensure councils are able to put emergency measures in place to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society to successfully self-isolate.”

However, the homeless charity Crisis responded to the announcement calling it “insufficient”.

Its chief executive Jon Sparkes said: “What we really need is a coordinated plan from the national Government to ensure people experiencing homelessness have immediate access to appropriate housing during this outbreak.

“We also need to see a cross-Government effort to prevent soaring levels of homelessness in the wake of COVID-19 – this should include a ban on evictions and additional financial support through the Universal Credit system.”

Megan Preston, service development manager and coronavirus lead at Glass Door, told Inside Housing that its services have “rigorous” processes for identifying if clients might be at risk of catching the virus, and whether they can be offered shelter.

Emma Noble, head of fundraising for The Passage, a homeless shelter in Victoria, said: “We’re taking precautions to keep our clients clean and healthy.”

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