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Responding to rough sleepers

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Facing Homelessness in A Time of Pandemic: Combatting COVID-19

  • The ongoing national struggle against the Coronavirus presents a grave threat to those living on the streets of the UK.
  • Food banks are struggling to cope with the unprecedented pressures placed on their services, as a result of the current lack of donations, rationing of supermarket produce and shortage of volunteers due to self-isolation.
  • Numerous food banks have already been forced to close, including the Islington and West Yorkshire food banks from the Trussell Trust network, the latter of which recently had its supplies stolen during a robbery.[1]
  • The UK government has recognised the significant health risk posed by remaining on the streets during the pandemic, and has accordingly declared that all those sleeping rough are “to be housed.”
  • In communications to councils nationwide, Housing Minister Luke Hall has stated that a “local coordination cell” will be formed in order to orchestrate the accommodation of rough sleepers.
  • Hall also announced that rough sleepers will be triaged into three groups; those exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, those who are subject to pre-existing health conditions but are not currently displaying symptoms of the virus, and those without virus symptoms or underlying health issues.
  • As far as possible, rough sleepers with “significant drug and alcohol needs” will be separated from those without such needs.[2]
  • Homeless charities have warned of the devastating human cost that will ensue if outbreaks occur in overcrowded shelters.[3]
  • In order to minimise this risk, the government has also declared its intention to prevent the congregation of rough sleepers in shelters and street encampments.
  • These designated emergency measures have been met with the approval of leading UK homeless charity Crisis.
  • However, there are profound concerns as to whether the £3.2m provided by the government will be sufficient to enable the undertaking of this vital endeavour.[4]

The extra strain placed upon homelessness charities in the face of the Coronavirus outbreak is endangering thousands of lives.

Due to the critical demand created by the virus, the charity Shelter is in desperate need of extra funds to cover their software licences, in order that they are able to continue answering emergency calls.

To donate to Shelter’s emergency appeal, please visit: https://england.shelter.org.uk/donate


Rough Sleeping: The True State of the Case

  • The perception that there are no rough sleepers on the streets of County Durham is simply incorrect, as is the view that those who beg on the streets do so out of choice.
  • In 2019, DASH received 731 referrals from people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. These referrals included 548 males and 183 females, 87 of which were of individuals sleeping rough within County Durham.
  • During 2019, DASH conducted 41 “positive move-ons”, i.e the movement of individuals on to destinations, such as privately owned rental accommodation or supported housing. These move-ons constituted a crucial step in the road to helping individuals rebuild their lives.
  • It is similarly inaccurate to accuse all rough sleepers of “aggressive begging”, or indeed any form of begging at all. Research conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that, although 80% of those who have experienced homelessness and complex needs have slept rough, only 30% have engaged in street begging.[5]
  • Many rough sleepers are subject to complex needs, which have often developed due to the physical and psychological damage caused by protracted periods of sleeping on the streets. Crisis emphasises the correlation between the length of time an individual spends sleeping rough and their likelihood of developing substance misuse problems and additional needs relating to their physical and mental health. The longer an individual spends living on the streets, the higher their probability of coming into contact with the criminal justice system.[6]
  • Rough sleepers are also more likely to become the victims of crime; over the past year a rough sleeper was almost 17 times more likely to have been the victim of violence than a member of the general public, while nearly 25% of women sleeping rough have been sexually assaulted.[7]
  • For those suffering from complex needs, getting off the streets is even more difficult, partially due to a lack of accessibility to the support services from which they require help. For example, an individual struggling with both drug or alcohol issues and an additional mental health problem may be denied assistance from substance misuse and mental health services, until they have dealt with one of the issues. Many mental health services do not conduct diagnoses on the street so mental health outreach programmes and health service referrals may fail to provide a rough sleeper with the assistance they need.[8]
  • Rough sleepers can receive the help they require if local authorities collaborate to recognise those at risk and remove them from the streets as swiftly as possible.
  • The No Second Night Out (NSNO) approach is employed by many authorities to place rough sleepers into accommodation.[9] (For further details, please consult: http://www.nosecondnightout.org.uk).
  • Removing rough sleepers from the street is not, in and of itself, a sufficiently useful approach, as it fails to solve the structural causes of homelessness, as outlined in the “Causes of Homelessness” and “Tackling Homelessness” sections on this website. However, giving money to rough sleepers is not necessarily the most beneficial course of action.[10] 
More appropriate responses are:
  • Offering food, a hot drink, or a blanket.
  • Enquiring as to the current, specific needs of the rough sleeper.
  • Alerting StreetLink, a national organisation that will contact the relevant local authority.
  • Contacting Housing Solutions, Durham County Council’s organisation that aims to tackle local homelessness.
  • In cases when a rough sleeper is in serious distress, it may be more helpful to contact the police and/or an ambulance.
  • To support the fight against homelessness on a broader level, make a financial donation to national homelessness charities such as Shelter and Crisis, or a local charity such as DASH.  
  • PLEASE NOTE that if the rough sleeper in question appears to be under the age of 18, homelessness charities such as StreetLink strongly urge calling the police immediately, rather than contacting a charity.


Housing Solutions Contact Details:

Telephone Number (Housing Advice Line) – 03000 268 000

Email Address:  housingsolutions@durham.gov.uk

Out of Hours Telephone Number – 01388 722 538



Telephone Number – 0300 500 0914

Website – https://www.streetlink.org.uk




[1] Patrick Butler, ‘Food banks ask UK supermarkets to set aside coronavirus supplies’, The Guardian, 21 March 2020 <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/21/food-banks-plead-with-uk-supermarkets-to-set-aside-supplies-amid-coronavirus-fallout>

[2] ‘Coronavirus: All rough sleepers in England “to  be housed”, BBC News, 27 March 2020 <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52063939>

[3] Alexandra Topping, ‘Coronavirus: homeless face race against time to self-isolate’, The Guardian, 22 March 2020 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/22/coronavirus-homeless-face-race-against-time-to-self-isolate>

[4] ‘Coronavirus: All rough sleepers in England “to  be housed”, BBC News, 27 March 2020 <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52063939>

[5] ‘Tackling homelessness and exclusion: Understanding complex lives’, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, September 2011 <https://www.homeless.org.uk/sites/default/files/site-attachments/Roundup_2715_Homelessness_aw.pdf>

[6] ‘Rough sleepers and complex needs’, Crisis <https://www.crisis.org.uk/ending-homelessness/rough-sleeping/rough-sleepers-and-complex-needs/>

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Rebecca Miles, ‘Don’t give money to rough sleepers, police say’, Hereford Times, 25 January 2019 <https://www.herefordtimes.com/news/17384541.dont-give-money-to-rough-sleepers-police-say/>