This a critical time for people affected by homelessness and substance use problems. We’ve spoken to Phoenix’s Head of Housing to find out more about how COVID-19 has affected homeless people, what the Government has done and what could be done next to seize the opportunity to make change.
Q: Vicky, tell us how you came to be working in housing and about your role at Phoenix.
A: I experienced homelessness a few times when I was younger and that’s what ultimately led me to working in homeless services I think. I started off as a volunteer in a hostel in Kent, then moved to London around 15 years ago. I’ve done a lot of different roles since then, including street outreach and hostel management. I joined Phoenix just over 3 years ago as Head of Housing. I have responsibility for our housing services in England and everything that goes with that: delivering high quality services, making sure our houses are warm, welcoming and well-maintained, and ensuring that we’re meeting all legal and regulatory standards. I’m really fortunate to have committed and skilled staff teams. It makes the job much easier.
Q: Most people will know Phoenix as a substance misuse charity. Where does housing fit in?
A: Appropriate housing is essential to achieving and maintaining recovery but accommodation specifically aimed at people in recovery has been limited, and particularly so in recent years. Nearly one-fifth of people entering treatment last year said they had a housing need. Among specific cohorts that figure is even higher: 33% of opiate users and 44% of NPS clients entered treatment in housing need in 2018/19. Also, getting access to treatment can be really difficult without appropriate housing. For people sleeping rough it’s nigh on impossible to keep regular appointments for example.
Q: Where are Phoenix’ housing services and who do they cater for?
A: In England, we have supported housing services in London, Sheffield, Preston, Wirral and Tyneside. We also have a supported housing service in Glasgow, which is usually accessed via our Scottish Residential Rehabilitation Service. Most of our housing is abstinent-based. Clients are referred from rehab, prison services or other partner agencies and benefit from the support of their peers as well as staff as they learn how to live well without drugs or alcohol.
The most recent addition to our supported housing services is our Progress House in Lewisham, where the team are working with people who are still using drugs and alcohol but who want to make changes – either reducing or stopping. It’s a little bit different to our other housing services, but we’re already seeing good outcomes. Two service users have entered residential treatment so far since the start of this year and we’re seeing lots of moves into lower supported or independent accommodation.
Q: How has the recent COVID-19 outbreak affected homeless and insecurely housed people?
A: Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to the risks posed by Covid-19. Health services don’t generally respond particularly well to their needs and they are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions and to die early. The average mortality rate for a homeless man is 44. It’s 42 for homeless women. Added to that are the challenges of socially distancing when sleeping rough or in shared hostel accommodation.
Q: And what has the government’s response been?
A: The government released £3.2m of funding to local authorities to source emergency accommodation for those living on the streets who were known to services. It’s estimated that around 5,400 rough sleepers are now living in hotels across the country, and we’ve been privileged to be involved in supporting those housed in London through delivery of drug and alcohol advice to hotel workers. However, there are still people sleeping rough and there are reports of new rough sleepers coming on to the streets each day. There’s also a risk that numbers will increase further after lockdown ends because people have lost jobs or income because of the health crisis.
Q: What does the government need to do next?
A: In the short-term, funding will need to continue for those housed in hotels. The government should now be working with the sector to formulate an exit strategy, and that must include extending provision of supported housing. Homelessness isn’t just a housing problem and putting a roof over somebody’s head doesn’t mean the job’s done. 41% of homeless people have drug and alcohol related needs and require ongoing support and access to treatment systems, including residential treatment. We’ve asked the government, via our consultation submission, to establish a national ringfenced budget for homelessness provision, including supported housing services. A lot has been achieved through strong partnership work in recent months and the opportunity to build on that must be seized.
To read Phoenix’s submission to the HCLG Select Committee Inquiry – COVID-19: Homelessness, Rough Sleeping, the PRS click here.