Homelessness during Covid-19 crisis

All rough sleepers in St Albans District who want emergency accommodation to protect them from Covid-19 have been provided with it.

The agencies involved in the successful effort to make them safer were Hightown Housing Association’s homeless services team, St Albans City and District Council and a number of local charities including Open Door and Druglink.  

In another initiative, plans have also been put in place to ensure the District’s homeless continue to be supplied with food during the lockdown which forced the closure of one free meals service.

Councillor Jacqui Taylor, the Council’s Portfolio Holder for Housing, Inclusion and Protection, said: “We have received extra funding from the Government to help rough sleepers during the Covid-19 public health emergency as they are a high-risk group. Along with our partners, we have ensured that all those who have engaged with us and want accommodation have been found it.

“It is hoped that this may also lead to a permanent change in their life for some of them as they will now have access to support services that can help them find a new path.”

Hightown runs several homelessness services in St Albans, including the Open Door night shelter and supported housing services, Martin House and Kent House, and temporary accommodation units at  St Claire’s and Marlborough Road.  They also manage two outreach workers who engage with rough sleepers on the streets. 

Normally, during the winter months, St Albans rough sleeper Severe Weather Emergency Protocol provides 10 additional emergency beds through a volunteer-run initiative at Open Door and at a local church, managed by the Open Door charity. However, the national lockdown meant that communal night shelters needed to be closed and alternatives found using the additional funding.

Hightown homelessness services operations manager, Lou Champness-Nye, said: “It’s a fast-moving situation with numerous challenges, including the need for rough sleepers to want to engage with us, as well as managing individuals with complex issues and no recourse to public funds.  However, our team has been working tirelessly with our colleagues at St Albans City and District Council and other local groups to get people off the streets so they can abide by social distancing rules, protect their own health and avoid transmitting the virus.  

“With the Council’s support, we’ve been able to fast-track service users from our Kent House and Martin House units into council housing stock, while at the same time, moving people out of the SWEP provision into the Open Door night shelter and into our own temporary accommodation to free up rooms there.

“The local charity Druglink has also gone out of its way to support us by providing accommodation for four of our service users who have no recourse to public funds.  We’re continuing to help these individuals with emergency food parcels.”

Alongside emergency accommodation, the provision of food and support for the homeless is another area where a co-ordinated approach from multiple organisations is making a difference.  Social distancing rules have forced the temporary closure of Centre 33 that normally provides breakfasts and evening meals, so a contingency plan has been rapidly implemented.

Cllr Taylor said: “Existing volunteers at Centre 33 wanted to continue to help and we have found a way for them to maintain supplies of cooked food for the homeless. 

“Our Business Compliance team was able to advise the volunteers on how food could continue to be cooked safely while social distancing rules were applied. 

“The way those volunteers and other members of the community have come together to face the complex challenge of keeping rough sleepers safer during the Covid-19 crisis has been outstanding.

“No one needs to sleep rough or beg in the District at this difficult time as accommodation and food is available. I would ask people to bear that in mind and think of making a donation to Open Door or another local charity to enable them to continue their vital work.” 

Lou said: “We’re keeping the Open Door shelter open 24/7 to provide round-the-clock support and running the usual lunch drop-in service at the earlier time of 12.30-1.30pm. 

“At the same time, we’re liaising closely with the Open Door charity and Centre 33 who are working with St Saviour’s Church to provide a base from which volunteers can cook food off the premises safely while observing social distancing guidelines. This will provide a hot meal for those currently resident at the night shelter, and other vulnerable people.  It’s been really fantastic to see the community pull together as one to support those most in need.”

Lindsey McLeod, treasurer for the Open Door charity St Albans, added: “Thanks to the continued support of our dedicated team of volunteers, we’ve been able to maintain essential services to homeless people in St Albans during this difficult time.” 

The Open Door charity welcomes food donations from the general public to continue to run the lunchtime drop-in service.  If you would like to donate food, please email the Open Door shelter on info@opendoorstalbans.org.

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