Supporting people who are homeless during COVID-19, notes from Cambridge

Cambridge during lockdown. Image credit: Judith Greenwood

Cambridge during lockdown. Image credit: Judith Greenwood

Dr Johannes Lenhard, from the Max Planck Cambridge Centre (Max Cam) in the Department of Social Anthropology, has conducted years of research on the economies of homeless people in Paris and London. He has started a new project with homeless people and those who support them in Cambridge during the pandemic.


Frontline NHS staff have been widely lauded, celebrated with rainbows in windows and weekly clapping. And rightly so. The healthcare system is the backbone of the fight against this pandemic in the UK and elsewhere. However, less has been written about another group of essential workers, the ones supporting people in situations of homelessness. In fact, so far even the government has not provided explicit guidance for people like Mark Allan and his team at Jimmy’s Cambridge, or Jon Canessa, Chaplain to Homeless People and Bishop’s Officer for Homeless (Ely Diocese). Both are working hard to help people in emergency accommodation, shelters and move-on houses in Cambridge.

Support initiatives, new rules, structures and routines constantly have to be thought up and adopted on the spot. How do you continue providing housing for up to 26 people in an emergency hostel, like Jimmy’s? Shared rooms were quickly turned into singles, and rules designed to make people spend most of their time active in the outside world were flipped upside down.

When people were only allowed out within the strict limits of government guidelines, new problems quickly arose: how to keep people that were used to being outside all day busy in the confines of a hostel? Volunteers, usually around to spend time with residents and lead activities were – for safety reasons – not coming in as frequently anymore. A donation of Kindles and a ping pong and pool table helped. But physical distancing remains challenging at Jimmy’s hostel in particular.

Jimmy's night shelter in Cambridge. Image: Graham Knott.

Jimmy's night shelter in Cambridge. Image: Graham Knott.

Obviously, staff are under enormous pressure to support everyone, particularly people struggling with complex needs, such as addiction and mental health issues. Specialists services were not accessible until recently, however. All that on top of reduced income from rent (due to housing fewer residents) and not being able to hold crucial charity events. Mark Allan summed it up to me:

We have had to react quickly, and it’s been challenging. We are lucky to have a great team of staff and volunteers, and have remained open throughout. Our residents have been trying really hard – people are with us because life has been tough, and the sudden threat to life, and new rules to follow, has made life even tougher. We have adapted as best we could to keep people safe.
Mark Allen, Chief Executive of Jimmy's Cambridge

The situation in the hotels that have been refunctioned to house people sleeping rough under the government-financed scheme continues to be strenuous. Jon Canessa, who is involved in support for homeless people all year round, has been one of the (voluntary) frontline supporters there. While the government has made £3.2m of emergency COVID funding available to house people sleeping rough, what proved to be just as crucial at the hotels was providing sustained support.

Those in the hotels tend to be ‘entrenched rough sleepers’, people who have been staying outside for a prolonged period, and require even more support. Around 110 people that were formerly sleeping rough have been housed. Canessa, together with other volunteers and organizations such as WinterComfort and again Jimmy’s, provides the much-needed support to the people accommodated in hotels such as the Travelodge and also housing provided by King’s College.

The encampment of some people sleeping rough in Cambridge’. Image credit: Johannes Lenhard

The encampment of some people sleeping rough in Cambridge’. Image credit: Johannes Lenhard

Three days a week, Canessa spends several hours around lunchtime with people at the Travelodge: “That is what is needed, the daily personal comfort and checking in what people need.” Mostly, Canessa listens to people’s stories and tries to support with everyday necessities – a nail clipper here, a pair of shoes there – often in liaison with other services that aren’t fully back in the field yet. Overall, Canessa was most positive about what has already been achieved: “Staff [in the hotel] have been terrific, they have a great attitude of wanting to help, which helps people to feel safe and supported.”

Slowly, it feels, things are becoming slightly more normal, more under control. Most importantly for the people at Jimmy’s and in the hotels, specialized care services are increasingly returning to normal: move-on houses are re-opening for more long-term accommodation, drug tests – an important means for people to keep on top of their addictions – have restarted. The ongoing support from the public – particularly with food donations – has been an important pillar throughout. Obviously, the residents are itching to understand what comes next; like everyone else, they are keen to return to some sort of normality, and escape the uncertainty Covid-19 brought with it.

“Are we really going to put 110 people back on the street?”

Questions remain, however. What is going to happen to the people currently, and temporarily, in hotels? Their housing is going to run out just as the government’s furlough schemes will. Jon Canessa is unsure about what is to come: “Are we really going to put 110 people back on the street?” The Council is currently assessing each person in the hotels to work out what their options are.

For Canessa, it would be disappointing to lose contact with many people that have often just started to engage with support services: “There is something important and significant about this parallel accommodation together with the support! You could think about it as a little bit of a live experiment – and it works.” Canessa told me about some people in the hotels who are now in sustained touch with support services for the first time; the accommodation and the helpful experience provided by everyone involved might have taken away some of the suspicion.

People sleeping rough for long periods often have a certain frustration with support services, sometimes based on experience, sometimes on rumors. At times, it can feel that support is conditional on fulfilling certain milestones, often connected to being abstinent. What could be perceived as a burden, and what some scholars call ‘welfare conditionality’, has temporarily disappeared amid the urgency of the pandemic response. As a result, what we are seeing is a large, live trial of many of the Housing First principles.

In contrast to the historic ‘treatment first’ approaches, Housing First starts with providing accommodation as a stabilizing basis, then builds on it with support for ‘complex needs’ such as mental health issues, alcohol or substance use. While other countries, such as Canada and the US have trialed and rolled out Housing First more widely, the UK has been slower in its deployment. If Covid-19 has any silver lining for homeless people it may be this: showing that quick and more-or-less unconditional access to housing can indeed have enormous longer-term effects. Let us hope these early hints at some positive outcomes continue in the coming months, and something that politicians will take seriously.


Johannes Lenhard is supported by the Max Planck Cambridge Centre (Max Cam) and a grant provided under the urgent Covid-19 response scheme at the University of Cambridge.