Building a picture of how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting people experiencing homelessness.

COVID-19 is having a severe impact on people who are homeless. We need to understand and let the response be informed by lived experience.

Over the last month Groundswell have been working to ensure the voices of people experiencing homelessness are monitored, listened to, and included in the COVID-19 response. Through our research project – “Monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on people experiencing homelessness” – we have begun to build a picture of how COVID-19 and the measures taken in response to the virus have significantly impacted people’s lives across the UK.

In this time of crisis, it can be a challenge to engage people in the decision-making process but it is never more important than it is now. The shifts in the way the system is working are having a real impact on the day-to-day lives of people who rely on support services. We have seen changes in access, entitlements and even the rights of people – some positive and some negative. There is also a real opportunity to learn from these fundamental shifts. 

In the first of a series of briefings, we outlined the early insights gathered through our routine work with people experiencing homelessness, conversations with our #HealthNow network and from logging any concerns we hear from our network of people with experience of homelessness. Key issues reported included people finding it increasingly difficult to access food and money, especially rough sleepers who relied on the public footfall which has dramatically decreased due to lockdown measures. One Groundswell staff member said about a person they were supporting:

“They were begging to try and earn money for hostel accommodation. They used to earn £30 a day but now they are making no money to even eat. He feels forgotten about”.

Another significant concern for those we talked to was the onset and exacerbation of mental health issues. People experiencing homelessness are already at increased risk of both mental and physical health conditions; social distancing and self-isolation measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have as a result led to the worsening of mental wellbeing and increased feelings of isolation.

“I’m depressed and lonely but I’m glad I’m not on the streets”

“It feels like people’s mental health is more of an issue the longer this goes on”

The support available for people across the country and in different forms of accommodation was patchy. Similarly, access to medical appointments and treatment had rapidly changed leaving some people with existing health needs struggling to get them met. The decisions that are made at the moment are not ‘health neutral’: the health issues that many people who are homeless face are not going away and the challenges in accessing the health system are only increasing. As we respond to COVID-19 we should not forget the already significant health inequalities between the non-homeless population and those experiencing homelessness, that are likely to increase as a result of COVID-19.

This is just a snapshot of some of the experiences and narratives we are hearing over a short-period of time but demonstrate clearly the need for continued research and for the voices of those with lived experience to be at the forefront of local and strategic planning in response to COVID-19.

Despite the challenges faced in light of the pandemic, it has increasingly put the issue of homelessness on the public health agenda. The emphasis on responding to homelessness, as evidenced by the government’s assertion that all local authorities in England should find appropriate accommodation for all rough sleepers, has meant that the devasting impact of the virus may also provide an opportunity in the fight to tackle homelessness.

Preliminary findings from this research have alluded to the positive impacts that the concentrated response on supporting people during the pandemic have led to. We spoke to someone who had been moved into temporary accommodation due to the outbreak who described the positive impact additional support had had on their lives: 

“…gone from being homeless to having food delivered, making new friends and getting taxis to his health appointments there and back”

The project has started small and is expanding to reach more participants across the country. Our reference group of people with experience of homelessness will be working together to support the development of our future briefings to bring together rapid insights during this unprecedented time. Every fortnight we’ll be releasing a new briefing to highlight our most recent findings, sign up to our mailing list to keep up to date with these and follow us on Twitter @ItsGroundswell. 

We urge people from across the sector to ensure that engaging people during decision-making is central to any planning responses to, and beyond, the COVID-19 pandemic. We want to hear what is happening locally in your area, whether you’re involved in planning or delivering a response or directly supporting people who are homeless. If you want to get involved in the project, contact Groundswell’s Research Manager Jo:

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