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‘We’re working flat out’ — Kingston homelessness charity on Covid-19 impact

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Like every London borough and local authority, Kingston has been hit hard by the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic with the impact being felt far beyond

In the first of a series of interviews featuring prominent community figures in the borough, the Surrey Comet spoke with Sophie Mayor from Kingston Churches Action on Homelessness (KCAH) more than a year after the arrival of of Covid-19.

KCAH took a lead on the government-supported initiative to find emergency accommodation for everyone experiencing homelessness in Kingston during the first wave of Covid-19.

Since then, they have achieved a number of successes and also faced renewed difficulties in supporting rough sleepers during the pandemic, while their influence in that work has grown, as Sophie described:

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“Since the start of Covid we’ve expanded massively. We’ve gone from 15 staff to 30, doubling in size.

“We’re all working flat out, all the time, and increased our staffing to meet that need that Covid has presented,” she said, suggesting that the impact of coronavirus has only increased the workload taken on by homelessness charities like KCAH.

Indeed, with the closure of the group’s acclaimed Night Shelter project, which offered overnight stays to rough sleepers that soon became unworkable due to Covid safety restrictions, new models have been sought to support the homeless community.

One of those is the Joel Project, a new accommodation hub now managed by KCAH.

The ‘stabilisation centre’ hosted by the project is for those rough sleepers who are impacted by drugs or alcohol addiction.

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The Joel Project. Image via KCAH

Under KCAH management the hub is staffed 24 hours a day, with space for up to seven residents (there are three people in-house at the moment) to cook and join in various activities while staying there.

Perhaps the biggest development concerning homelessness and Covid-19 in the UK was the government’s unprecedented action to find emergency accommodation for rough sleepers with the ‘Everyone In’ initiative.

The scheme empowered local authorities and NGOs like KCAH to utilise spaces like unused empty rooms in hotels to house rough sleepers.

“It required an immense amount of work that literally no-one expected to happen, and came about only because of Covid,” Sophie said.

Chiming with many housing and homelessness charities, however, she also lamented the end of the Everyone In scheme, which was ‘quietly’ rolled back by the government last autumn as winter approached.

“When Everyone In ended in September it meant that everyone who had been placed up to that point would still be in that emergency accommodation but anyone who came in as newly homeless would have to look at other options,” she said.

“It was a very difficult time, especially for our housing advice service, because during the first lockdown they were getting used to people turning up to our office in a housing crisis and them being able to say ‘great, we’ve got a hotel room for you straight away’.

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“September happened and it was quite a shift for us to say ‘actually we don’t have any hotel rooms for you now’.”

Yet as KCAH have pointed out, the Everyone In scheme was only ever a temporary solution as single hotel rooms paid for with government funding only put a pause on the state of homelessness rather than a definitive end.

Consequently, the group are now championing a way to build on the scheme called ‘Everyone In For Good’, and have helped 22 people from the hotel rooms into permanent accommodation.

Such successes have also been marred by tragedy over the last year.

As the Surrey Comet reported, at least two people experiencing homelessness with links to Kingston died on the streets since the start of the pandemic.

Both were known to KCAH.

“It was a really difficult time for KCAH. We had two people die about a week apart from each other. One I’d worked closely with for two years and the other I’d known relatively well over the preceding weeks,” Sophie said.

“I know both of those people touched a lot of those people in the organization and it was really heartbreaking. We also lost other members of the homelessness community during November and December

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“I think it spurred us on even more to help others so they don’t end up in the same position.

“These people who died didn’t die from Covid directly but in a way they died because of it. One of those who sadly passed away would normally have been in the Night Shelter and working with a member of our staff, but sadly that wasn’t available.

“A lot of things that homeless people would have normally done like food halls set up by charities and so on wasn’t available… it meant that they became even more invisible because they would not have had that support,” she added.

Amid such crises and the relentless work that goes into averting them, what does the future hold for KCAH? And how could the government help?

“It’s got to come down to funding. It’s so often shortlived,” Sophie said.

“You may get money for a year but then have to wait to see if there is funding for you to carry on that project.

“To plan for the long term, organizations like KCAH need that stability to be able to carry on those projects. We need more permanent or at least longer-term funding.”

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