Published on 22 April 2020
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Homelessness under lockdown

COVID-19 is placing enormous pressure on many homeless shelters, hostels and supported move-on houses. With ongoing fear of a virus break out, in addition to healthcare demands, questions around addiction and longer term budgeting will become even more pressing

There are more than 150,000 homeless people in the UK,[1] about 3% of whom are sleeping rough. Most attention during Covid-19 has been focused on these 3% most marginalized people – and fortunately there has been a significant amount of government help: £3.2m of emergency COVID funding has been made available for rough sleepers, specifically for supporting self-isolation in hotels, and beyond that to provide housing more generally as a protective measure. Unlike in other parts of Europe, where many homeless people are left outside risking starvation as their support services cease, this is a big step forward.

While possibly the most pressing issue, particularly from an overall public health perspective to protect both homeless people and the population at large, housing is only one problem that needs an urgent solution. Other important services – access to free food at soup kitchens, a change of clothes or access to showers in day centers, for many also supply of drug paraphernalia such as needles and syringes, and most crucially support from social service workers or outreach teams – much of this seems to be reduced to an absolutely bare minimum across the UK.

Similarly, many homeless shelters, hostels and supported move-on houses are under enormous pressure due to COVID-19. One emergency accommodation centre for homeless people in Cambridge I have been volunteering with since earlier this year has in many respects been coping well so far. Jimmy’s Cambridge caters mostly to people sleeping rough, as their first temporary accommodation immediately afterward; there is space for 26 residents and they can be housed for around 4 weeks (but often stay much longer) before moving on to somewhere medium term. Most importantly, support workers and members of staff and volunteers provide day-to-day activities as well as essential support. The latter includes planning for longer term housing, finding medical help as needed, and applying for benefits. All of these services are key components of supporting homeless people beyond housing – and they are still happening at Jimmy’s.

But at the same time, the everyday routines and processes as well as the longer-term planning are heavily impacted by the pandemic. While there hasn’t been a case of Covid -19 within Jimmy’s yet, some of the key workers and volunteers have self-isolated following government guidance; staff shortages making it a challenge for the remaining workers as a result, who are rising to the challenge. Jimmy’s also has several double rooms which as a matter of precaution are used as singles now; this leads to a decrease in income from the housing benefits that pay for everyone’s rent. A further challenge is that many fundraising events have been cancelled, and these usually make up an important part of Jimmy’s funding. Despite the resulting financial difficulties, it is still unclear how much government support Jimmy’s will be able to receive, particularly when it comes to grants rather than loans. Financial insecurity is something that is not unique to Jimmy’s at all – many of the over 200 charities focused on homelessness will have to cope with similar problems.

Perhaps even more complicated in the short term are all the everyday difficulties that staff at Jimmy’s and any other institution dealing with vulnerable people like people sleeping rough are facing. How do you encourage people who are used to spending all day outside to remain within the confines of their rooms – or at least the common areas? How does physical distancing translate into a house of more than 20 people and all the incoming staff and volunteers? A simple problem also starts to matter more and more: how can you help people deal with boredom? At Jimmy’s, staff and volunteers have come up with many safe, creative solutions including putting up a ping pong table and providing Kindle Fires.

One of the most pressing questions relates to managing substance use directly: not only are substances such as heroin and crack, which some homeless people consume regularly, in much shorter supply due to Covid-19, but ways of procuring them and also consuming them have become even more challenging. What is the role of institutions, such as Jimmy’s in this situation? Rules around alcohol consumption – normally strictly forbidden in dry hostels such as Jimmy’s – have been relaxed slightly; where possible methadone prescriptions are provided for heroin users, too. But what about people who use other substances who are now even more vulnerable to both public and police scrutiny? Government guidance on this issue is sparse and doesn’t really address the core issues around drug consumption.

There is an ongoing fear that COVID-19 will break out at in places catering to people who are homeless despite all the efforts. If it does, questions like the above around addiction, boredom and longer term budgeting will become even more pressing in addition to the healthcare demands and complications that could arise. 

Dr Johannes Lenhard is the Centre Coordinator of the Max Planck Cambridge Centre of Ethics, Economy and Social Change. He is involved with Jimmy’s in a longer-term research project on their modular homes which has currently been postponed until after COVID-19 abates. Reach him at and find him on Twitter @JFLenhard



[1] This number is the 2017 ‘core homelessness’ estimate from the Homeless Monitor 2019; it includes people sleeping rough, people “’quasi rough sleeping’ (sleeping in cars, tents, public transport); squatting and occupation of non- residential buildings; staying in hostels, refuges and shelters; unsuitable TA (e.g. B&B, non-self-contained, a proportion of out of area placements); and “sofa-surfing”, i.e. staying with non-family, on a short-term basis, in overcrowded conditions.” (p. 62).

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Dr Johannes Lenhard

Dr Johannes Lenhard is the Centre Coordinator of the Max Planck Cambridge Centre of Ethics, Economy and Social Change, and continues his own research on inequality and ethics. He is...

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