The scene in the brightly lit hall of Chelsea Methodist Church in central London looked little different at first glance from efforts in previous winters to help those without homes. A small group of tired-looking people, some surrounded by their belongings, ate shepherd’s pie in near silence.
But coronavirus has transformed this and other services to the homeless. Guests were seated at either end of long trestle tables to maintain social distancing and there were multiple sittings to feed the maximum number of people while maintaining social distancing.
The adjustment devised by Glass Door, a charity that co-ordinates the efforts of Chelsea Methodist and many other London churches to help the homeless, is one example of an unprecedented push to help the 280,000 people who were last year estimated to be sleeping rough or in unstable, temporary accommodation in England survive the pandemic.
Many initiatives this year have been a result of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Everyone In programme. The scheme, launched in March, sought to move every rough sleeper into one of England’s suddenly empty hotels to ensure the virus could not spread among rough sleepers or in communal shelters.
The government says the programme, which has been phased out as hotels have returned to their normal use, placed 19,000 people into long-term accommodation and another 10,000 into emergency shelter.
However, the test, according to people working with the homeless, will be whether such success can be maintained long-term, particularly as economic pressures are likely to force more people on to the streets.
John Glenton, executive director of care and support for the Riverside Group, a homelessness charity and housing provider based in Manchester, accepted that Everyone In had been a “real success” for his services’ users.
“Their health has improved; their nutrition has improved; their overall feeling of wellbeing has increased,” he said.
But he cautioned: “I just think that we need to be careful that we don’t go backwards.”
MHCLG said its “unprecedented” efforts were “ongoing”. It said it had spent £700m on fighting homelessness and rough sleeping in 2020 and planned to spend another £750m in 2021.
The challenges were clear at the end of a recent dinner sitting at the Chelsea church. The pandemic has meant that instead of bedding down for the night, guests had to file straight back out into the street.
Glass Door has this winter for the first time opened two hostels where homeless people each have their own room, but space is limited. While the charity’s partner churches would normally offer 170 spaces nightly on church floors, the two hostels house 92.
Asitha Ameresekere, a film-maker who is the volunteer head cook for the meals in Chelsea, said the new arrangements had been “quite challenging”. The service had to modify still further after London entered a new, higher tier of coronavirus restrictions. Guests who have some form of shelter are being encouraged to take the meal away with them.
The central problem was that the volunteers had to “turf them out”, Mr Ameresekere said.
Yet the new arrangements were still clearly meeting a need.
“Having a place to go to for food every night is pretty amazing,” said Mark Christoph Schütte, who has been sleeping on the streets since coming to the UK this year from Germany.
Just as effusive was a woman who gave her name only as Bee, a guest who has accommodation but relies on the church as her source of regular hot food. “Their dedication to the service is astounding,” she said.
Alex Norris, a Glass Door caseworker, said it was easier to work with clients staying in a hostel than in a succession of church halls. “They’re not going to worry about getting out into the driving rain first thing in the morning and walking to the next place,” he said.
Mr Norris helps clients secure identity documents, resolve their immigration status, claim social security benefits and open bank accounts.
“The hope is that offering people that accommodation, or stable shelter, gives people the opportunity to work out all the stuff that’s going on in their lives,” Mr Norris said.
Alexander Stewart illustrated how such efforts could, in time, result in a homeless person’s reintegration into both housing and work. Mr Stewart — not his real name — described how St Mungo’s, another homeless charity, helped him after six years of rough sleeping in London find first a hostel place and then, in mid-2018, a flat.
St Mungo’s “Recovery College” — classes supported by housebuilders Barratt Developments and Taylor Wimpey — then let him work at his own pace to rebuild his skills and confidence, according to Mr Stewart.
“They were there to support me,” he said.
In October, after multiple rejections, he secured a job with another homelessness charity. St Mungo’s said Mr Stewart was one of more than 40 people it had helped into work since the start of the pandemic.
Mr Norris warned that many problems remained intractable. Many of London’s homeless are foreigners whose immigration status bars them from receiving public funds.
High rents in some cities mean that many homeless people have jobs but still cannot afford homes.
However, Mr Stewart illustrated the psychological, as well as economic, boost for those able to return both to work and a home.
“As a person, definitely, I feel more whole,” he said. “When you’re street homeless, there’s no direction, no plans, no anything.”