The next in our series of ‘6 months on’ guest blog posts comes from Rebecca Stockman who works with YMCA St Paul’s Group in delivering Merton Winter Night Shelter. Rebecca writes:

I often wonder what difference it would have made to have known what an extraordinary this year was going to be when I was first reflecting on the impact of COVID-19 on how we respond to homelessness, function as community and react to social injustice. In May, it felt very much head-down, figure-it-out and keep-people-going. There was a hope then that the responses from government might make a significant impact on homelessness in the UK. In some ways, it has. Many of the people that were accommodated during the ‘Everyone In’ programme now have more stable accommodation. They have seen considerable improvements in their health and wellbeing – certainly true of the guests of Merton Winter Night Shelter and we have heard the same from many other sources.

However, for those for whom the programme did not well-suit, they now find themselves in a much worse position in many ways. There are less people out and about, food is harder to come by and day centres that are still running have much lower capacity with the additional measures needed in place. And what of the people whose housing fragility has now broken and are finding themselves out in the cold? Numbers are growing and with the economy in recession. This is projected to continue. Local authorities in many cases are still responding with offers of temporary accommodation. However, the option of moving out of area and into poorly serviced housing is not an easy choice to accept. In addition, with considerable financial pressure along with statutory responsibilities, local authorities are getting stricter when looking at who they can help and who is turned away.

In Merton, we have been supported well by a generous network of volunteers, loyal faith groups, the local authority and funders. On Monday 30th November we opened a completely redesigned, COVID-safe, emergency accommodation service from a shared flat in Wimbledon. This winter, for now at least, we are delighted to be able to provide a home for people to rest in safety and warmth prepared with them in mind. We have 5 bedrooms that are being used with single occupancy, with two of those that can be used for couples if required.

A room at the emergency accommodation, credit: Rebecca

We are aware of how fortunate we are to have been able to secure this space. With the support of a local church who saw the potential and funders that were prepared to back us we were able to take a leap and figure out the details as we went. This has not been the same for many other shelters in the wider network. It is heart-breaking to think about what will happen in those areas without their usual safety-nets in place. Being able to protect this grass-roots scheme has, importantly, meant that we have protected the community-response infrastructure for future work. I worry about other areas that have not been able to do that, and the work that will now be required for them to get back to where they were pre-COVID-19.

We are now looking at how we can increase our capacity this winter and ready to get planning the details as and when we hear back from funding bids which we are hopeful of receiving.