Southend Council leader unable to guarantee that rough sleepers won’t end up back on the streets

Southend Council says it can’t guarantee rough sleepers who were moved into hotels during the coronavirus pandemic won’t end up back on the streets.

When the pandemic began, the council was instructed by the government to immediately find temporary housing for more than 100 rough sleepers to avoid the spread of the virus, with many placed in B&Bs and hotels.

But with the lockdown continuing to ease and hotels possibly re-opening next month, there are now fears many of those will have nowhere to go.

Council leader Councillor Ian Gilbert faced pressure over how the authority will provide long-term support at the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee on Thursday night.

Conservative leader, Cllr Tony Cox, pressed Mr Gilbert to guarantee this would not mean rough sleepers being put back on the streets.

“I would love to give that assurance and we are certainly doing everything humanly possible to make sure that isn’t the case,” said Mr Gilbert.

“But we don’t have any certainty over how long the current arrangements will last. If B&Bs are able to start opening up and transferring back to business as usual tomorrow then we will have an extraordinary challenge on our hands.

“So I can’t give that commitment without the certainty of knowing how long we will be doing this piece of work.”

The Tory leader said he was “concerned” as the government has already announced the next phase of easing the lockdown could be from July 4 and urged the administration to begin talks with temporary accommodation providers who may “welcome the additional income from rehousing people”.

Mr Gilbert said those conversations were already happening on a “day to day basis” and “between 20 and 30” rough sleepers have already been moved into longer-term accommodation.

When the lockdown began in March, the government said landlords are unable to evict tenants until August 23 to ensure renters are given security during the pandemic. But the council leader warned that when this ban is lifted, it could present further challenges.

“I said from the start of this I want to break the cycle of rough sleeping,” he said.

“The situation is evolving all the time but one of our other concerns is that when the embargo ends on evictions we might find people’s circumstances have changes during this period and it could bring a new burden to the council.”

With that possibly remaining highly unpredictable, the council said they would monitor it and review plans if needed at the time.

Another challenge for the council is funding for the housing. The charity Crisis has warned that government funding runs out at the end of June but there has been “no indications at all” that additional funds will be provided.

The government has said councils must continue to provide accommodation after giving £6.4million to help fund the work.

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter