How Norwich's homeless have been helped during coronavirus

A homeless person sleeping rough on a bench outside Norwich City Hall.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

A homeless person sleeping rough on a bench outside Norwich City Hall. - Credit: Antony Kelly

In the first of a three-part special, Daniel Moxon looks at how efforts to support the homeless in Norwich have fared during the pandemic. 

A key part of the government's messaging all throughout the coronavirus pandemic has been all about staying at home as much as possible – but that hasn't been an option for everybody.

Very early on in the outbreak, there was a focus on identifying those in our society most at risk from the virus. Those without a permanent place to live were among those deemed to need emergency support.

And so the national 'Everybody In' call was issued, with the aim of doing exactly that – getting as many people off the streets and into secure, hygienic accommodation as quickly as possible.

In Norwich, this was organised by the Pathways team, commissioned by Norwich City Council and made up of six other organisations who work to support those without a home.

Dr Jan Sheldon, chief executive of Pathways member St Martins, is fiercely proud of the work her teams did in helping get more than 100 people off the streets in less than two days.

Dr Jan Sheldon, chief executive of St Martin's Housing Trust. Picture: St Martin's

Dr Jan Sheldon, chief executive of St Martins Housing Trust. - Credit: St Martins

"On March 23 with the ‘Everybody In’ call, it happened literally within 48 hours," she said.

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"Across the whole of England over 15,000 people were in, which is just incredible. Listening to fellow CEOs up and down the country, the work the ministry and key players did in terms of getting hotels available really quickly was heartwarming.

"Specifically in Norwich, we got over 100 people into hotel accommodation. Of those, we’ve had an 89pc positive outcome rate, which is just incredible."

But it doesn't mean everyone has been off the streets, as some have refused all help offered to them as they "have entrenched rough sleeping habits". Norwich City Council added that they could not force people to accept temporary accommodation.

Of the around 150 people who have benefited from emergency housing, more than 120 are "now in permanent and secure accommodation" according to statistics from city council.

That ratio exceeds the positive outcome rate nationally, which stands at 69.7pc. 

Homeless Peter Brown chats to volunteer Tony Bown at the Norwich Open Christmas on Christmas Day for the vulnerable and...

Homeless man Peter Brown chats to volunteer Tony Brown at the Norwich Open Christmas on Christmas Day. - Credit: Denise Bradley

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said its latest figures show the Everyone In initiative has helped 33,000 people across the UK, with 23,000 of those now in settled housing.

They added: "We agree a safe home for all is vital – which is why we're providing over £700m this year and £750m next year to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, including delivering 3,300 long-term homes this year."

It is not yet clear now much of this money will be allocated to services in Norwich, but the city council said it had secured more than £1.4m worth of funding from the government's Next Steps Accommodation programme, and a further £25,000 from its cold weather fund.

Some of that funding has been used to organise alternative accommodation arrangements during the pandemic.

As well as the temporary shelters already in place, Pathways organisations have taken advantage of lockdowns to block-book hotel rooms while demand is lower due to travel restrictions.

These winter shelter hotel bed spaces have been funded by St Martins, the Norfolk Community Foundation and local and central government, and have been augmented by the creation of other emergency spaces like the new self-contained suites built by YMCA Norfolk at its John Drake House facility.

YMCA Norfolk chief executive Tim Sweeting outside the charity's John Drake House facility next to Norwich Bus Station.

YMCA Norfolk chief executive Tim Sweeting outside the charity's John Drake House facility next to Norwich Bus Station. - Credit: Ella Wilkinson

All those places providing temporary homes to homeless people have had vigorous cleaning routines in place since the beginning of the pandemic which has added to the already huge workload for frontline support staff.

"Because of all that, though, to date we haven’t yet had a Covid outbreak, which is just incredible," said Dr Sheldon.

She added that, at the moment, St Martins and the rest of the Pathways partners are able to continue their support at least until the end of March.

What happens from then will depends largely on how the government's easing of lockdown progresses. Once hotels become busier again, there will be fewer accommodation spaces available.

But that's why the support given during the pandemic alongside short-term measures like shelter and food has been so important. The high percentage of people now in secure accommodation means there are currently fewer people in need of temporary housing.

Kevin Maguire, Norwich City Council cabinet member for rough sleeping, said: "It's fantastic to see how Pathways agencies have worked together to ensure people are identified and offered a safe place to stay – exactly the kind of joint working we intended when we commissioned the partnership."

Norwich city councillor Kevin Maguire.

Norwich city councillor Kevin Maguire. - Credit: Nick Butcher

The challenge of supporting people in Norwich

David* has been well-known to support services in the city. He was one of those given emergency accommodation under the 'Everybody In' initiative, but he has a long history of struggling to adapt and abandoned that shelter.

After a while away, he was found rough sleeping again in the winter, and consented to support from the emergency winter protocols.

There, support workers were able to talk to him and work to find a suitable place for him to stay where he would be comfortable.

He moved into the Somewhere Safe to Stay Hub, commissioned by Norwich City Council and run by St Martins, where he only stayed for a few days before feeling able to a permanent hostel.

There, he is given specialist support including for addiction and mental health, and will also be given help to prepare to move into his own home when he feels ready.

A council spokesperson said: "This is a great outcome for the client who has often been very reluctant to engage with support services and would often abandon accommodation provided to them."

*David's name has been changed to protect his identity.

About Pathways

Pathways Norwich was commissioned by Norwich City Council and is made up of six other organisations including The Feed...

Pathways Norwich was commissioned by Norwich City Council and is made up of six other organisations including The Feed, Future Projects, The Salvation Army, Shelter, St Martins and YMCA Norfolk. - Credit: Norwich City Council

Commissioned by Norwich City Council, Pathways is a collaboration between the authority and six other local organisations who work together to help homeless people and those with complex needs in the city.

It is made up of:

  • The Feed, which helps people get into work through training and guidance. It also has strong links to the food and hospitality industries in Norwich for people to gain valuable work experience.
  • Future Projects, which gives information, advice and advocacy as well as access to volunteering and work placement opportunities. It also has two dedicated community support venues and single-occupancy residential properties in Norwich.
  • The Salvation Army, a church and charity which provides immediate support for homeless people in Norwich. Pottergate ARC is a drop-in centre offering specialist support, refreshments, access to washing facilities and an advocacy service.
  • Shelter, which helps around 850 people every year in Norwich and has 25 years' experience of giving housing advice to people in the city.
  • St Martins, which since 1972 has offered emergency direct-access accommodation, residential care, support and development, with the aim of helping everyone to achieve a greater level of independence.
  • YMCA Norfolk, which provides accommodation and support services to young people aged between 16 and 25 across its 113 units in Norwich.

More in this series

– Norfolk's homeless encouraged to get Covid vaccine despite no JCVI prioritisation

– Norwich homeless service fears 'tsunami' when Covid's economic toll hits

– At least five homeless people died in Norfolk in 2020

– Big Issue seller on how lockdown pushed him closer to homelessness

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