Stephen McKay / Sleeping Rough / CC BY-SA 2.0
Stephen McKay / Sleeping Rough / CC BY-SA 2.0

Westminster Labour Group is calling on Westminster Council and the Government to redouble their efforts to protect rough sleepers at this time of national crisis.

In the initial phase of the outbreak there were huge efforts by the Council, the Mayor of London and the Government to assist rough sleepers off the streets into vacant hotel accommodation. This enabled the majority of Westminster’s pre-existing rough sleeping population and the many new arrivals who had been displaced from sofa surfing and other precarious accommodation in March to get a roof over their heads.

Around 50 of Westminster’s pre-lockdown rough sleeping population have been offered hotel or other new forms of accommodation since the start of the outbreak but have not taken it up. This longer-standing street community contains many with complex mental health needs, substance abuse issues and other challenges which local services have struggled to be able to assist with even in normal times. The situation has been exacerbated by the closure of day centres and other support networks due to the outbreak.

However, since going into lockdown, there has been a further wave of  first time rough sleepers particularly those who had been working in the hospitality and construction sectors who had previously been sofa surfing, living in accommodation that had closed or who had been illegally evicted. Sadly unlike the earlier group of rough sleepers the council has confirmed that many of these later arrivals are not being offered hotel accommodation and many have stayed on the streets while slower, more complicated attempts at reconnection and relocation are made. West End Labour Councillor Pancho Lewis has been out meeting with these new rough sleepers and the volunteer support services who have been working with them, calling on the council to take action to support them.

Labour recognises the Council’s desire to encourage those previously not from Westminster where possible to be rehoused in their previous home borough but in the middle of a pandemic it cannot be right for people (who want to be housed) to be kept on the streets while such processes take place, with hotels lying vacant.

There is also real concern about a potentially huge spike in new rough sleepers once the temporary restrictions on eviction are removed and it is essential that the Government provides the necessary resources to support local authorities, and Westminster in particular (given it has the largest rough sleeping population in the country), will need significant additional support to ensure further new arrivals aren’t forced to stay on the streets. The Government will need to take dramatic further action to sustain tenancies and protect tenants to head off this potential crisis. Such measures need to work alongside increased nationally funded support to ensure the rough sleepers currently in hotels can be supported to move into more stable accommodation rather than returning to the streets.

Cllr Nafsika Butler-Thalassis, Westminster Labour Group Deputy Leader said “At this time of crisis it is not right for Westminster to leave new rough sleepers on the streets while they try to find them longer term support for them. It needs to continue to use empty hotel spaces as part of the wider efforts to give them safe place to stay while being reconnected to more suitable long-term homes.”

Cllr Guthrie McKie, Westminster Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Member for Housing said “The Government has to do much more to protect tenants, prevent evictions and properly fund local authorities and the Mayor of London to head off the looming post-lockdown rough sleeping crisis.”

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