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Revive COVID-19 homeless scheme during winter, UK government urged

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As England enters a second COVID-19 lockdown, charities urged the government on Friday to revive a nationwide scheme to house rough sleepers over the winter, saying aid announced this week for homeless hotspots was not enough.

A homeless man is seen walking in London, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, London, Britain, April 17, 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Files

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday the ‘Everyone In’ programme had housed some 29,000 people since the first lockdown began - two-thirds of them permanently, and pledged 15 million pounds ($19 million) in new funding for 10 areas.

Following his announcement, more than 70 charity groups wrote to interior minister Priti Patel and housing secretary Robert Jenrick to demand the national rehousing scheme be resurrected.

They said people at risk of being deported - who cannot access state aid - would be especially vulnerable without similar help to house them.

“Those legally in the UK with no access to state support, and for whom employment is not possible during the pandemic, risk being pushed into exploitative work and potentially modern slavery to avoid sleeping rough,” the letter said.

At the start of Britain’s first lockdown in March, local authorities in England were given days to house thousands of rough sleepers in self-contained accommodation from hostels to hotels in a bid to slow the spread of the virus.

“Many people who would ordinarily have been refused accommodation were able to access this for the first time,” the letter said.

“We must see this positive approach apply to everyone as we enter a second wave of coronavirus with the additional risks associated with cold weather over winter,” it added.

The new government funds will be allocated to a handful of areas with the highest number of rough sleepers, including London, Bristol and Cornwall, to support them through the winter until March 2021.

But advocates said the funding fell short of the state’s previous support even as the number of people sleeping rough increases due to rising unemployment and evictions.

“This funding for 10 areas of the country isn’t nearly as extensive as what we saw in March, yet the threat from the virus remains the same,” Jon Sparkes, head of homelessness charity Crisis, said in a statement.

With protections ending for hard-pressed renters and the newly jobless, about 230,000 people are at risk of becoming homeless, according to recent research by charity Shelter.

Health experts say the homeless are at heightened risk from COVID-19 due to weakened immune systems caused by poor nutrition and not enough sleep.

A September study in The Lancet medical journal estimated that lockdown measures - such as specialist hotel accommodation - saved 266 lives and averted about 21,000 extra infections among the homeless population.

Relaxing those measures could lead to nearly 200 deaths and 12,000 new infections, the report found.

($1 = 0.7611 pounds)

Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by xxxxx . Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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