MOVES to stop coronavirus from spreading among homeless rough sleepers has led to a huge effort to bring people in off the streets over the last year.

The efforts as part of a national Government-backed initiative called Everyone In has housed approximately 30,000 people across the UK.

But it fell to local hands to sort out how this scheme would play out.

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Now, one of the people leading Oxford’s effort to help the homeless avoid Covid has spoken about the challenges of the task throughout 2020.

Paul Wilding, Oxford City Council’s Rough Sleeping and Single Homelessness Manager, said Everyone In has had a huge impact on preventing homelessness in the city, and may have led to the ‘hidden’ homeless seeking help.

Paul Wilding, centre, Oxford City Councils Rough Sleeping and Single Homelessness Manager alongside collleagues Melanie Armstrong and Brendan Lewis. Picture: Oxford City Council

Paul Wilding, centre, Oxford City Council's Rough Sleeping and Single Homelessness Manager alongside collleagues Melanie Armstrong and Brendan Lewis. Picture: Oxford City Council

“There are two ways to look at it: One is from the point of view of the pandemic the other is in terms of resolving people’s housing situations.

“In both, you can say there has been some real value in it [Everyone In]. I think we are quite fortunate we have not seen a massive Covid outbreak in the homeless population or in any of our projects accommodating people.”

“There have been cases but there has been no mass outbreak – and that is great.”

Before the pandemic started, there were two large, shared shelters where rough sleepers could come in from the cold if they wanted to.

These were at the newly opened Floyds Row shelter, where there was room for 40 people in a shared area, and in O’Hanlon House there was similar room for a further 20.

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But because of the way Covid spreads, the shared halls became unusable, and the council had to find new ways to accommodate rough sleepers in places they could easily isolate.

They chose to use hotel rooms and hostels, which were largely out of use at the time.

Mr Wilding added: “You can imagine that if all these people who have been accommodated were instead on the streets it is much more likely there would be such an outbreak. They have the facility to be able to isolate themselves, there have been people who can provide support and can manage the environment in as Covid secure a way as possible.”

Floyds Row homeless shelter. Inset below: Paul Wilding

Floyds Row homeless shelter. Inset below: Paul Wilding

After hotels began to re-open, the council leased 124 rooms in three locations across the city: at the student block Canterbury House on Cowley Road, at the YHA on Botley Road, and six rooms from University College as back up.

There are currently 118 people in these rooms, but it is difficult to tell how many of them have directly been made homeless as a result of the pandemic, according to the council officer.

Mr Wilding said: “What the lockdown has done is where people were in insecure accommodation arrangements it has ended many of those.

“Where someone was maybe sleeping on a friends sofa those arrangements have come to an end because of concern about being able to isolate or the spread of the virus.

“We have seen an increase in the fact we have got 118 people in this accommodation. Does that create some of its own demand as well if you are not able to stay with a friend and this looks like a better option? I don’t know.”

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However, what he is certain about is that Everyone In has helped to move 130 people on into more secure, long term accommodation.

Some of this is in private rented houses and flats, while others are in supported accommodation where they can still get help for mental illness and other needs.

And what is more, some of these people now indoors have been long-term rough sleepers, who have never before taken up the offer of help.

Mr Wilding said: “There are particular cases of people like that who have been very difficult to bring in but who have been accommodated because of Everyone In and then successfully moved on as well.

“I guess it is those stories which remind you why we are doing this.”

Canterbury House, Cowley Road, Oxford. Picture: Google Maps

Canterbury House, Cowley Road, Oxford. Picture: Google Maps

However at the same time, there are people still unwilling to accept help, often due to distrust of the council, or the police who also often visit them.

Oxford City Council estimates suggest there are between 18 and 25 people living on the streets of the city who will not accept help for various reasons.

But Mr Wilding said even if they do not, homelessness prevention workers will still visit them to check on them.

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He added: “The fact that they have turned down an option for them on one night might not mean they will do in the future.

“That support doesn’t go away because someone has turned down an offer.”

The Government has now discontinued the Everyone In initiative, though it still requires councils to make sure rough sleepers all have the offer of somewhere indoors to sleep.

The longer-term future of this however is far from certain, and the council’s lease on the YHA is due to expire in March, and its lease on Canterbury House in July.

There is also uncertainty about whether guidance on coronavirus will change when the leases run out to allow a return to the shared sleeping spaces at Floyds Row and O’Hanlon House.

Mr Wilding added: “If we cannot move back there, it is a question for the Government as to what they are going to continue to fund.

“There is commitment from the council to ensure people who have been accommodated don’t have to return to the streets.”