Analysis  ⁄  Community & society

Exeter rough sleepers in COVID-19 emergency accommodation face uncertain future

Exeter City Council has yet to confirm whether it will use any of the £2.15m Rough Sleeping Initiative funding it has received since 2018 to keep housing rough sleepers when government emergency accommodation funding runs out.

Exeter city council   Rough sleeping initiative   Coronavirus   Covid-19 emergency accommodation   Night shelter  

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the government announced £3.2 million in emergency funding for local authorities to move all rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless people into temporary accommodation. Each local authority allocation was based on the number of rough sleepers it reported in the autumn 2019 snapshot count.

Exeter’s performance in the count was poor: it reported the 25th highest number of rough sleepers among 316 local authorities in England, with a higher rate of rough sleeping per capita than Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester, as well as London boroughs including Southwark, Lambeth and Haringey.

The 2019 count also revealed that the south west was the only region to show a significant increase in the number of people sleeping rough. 490 people, 11% of the country’s rough sleepers, live in the south west, a 7% increase on the previous year. Exeter was one of three rough sleeping hotspots in the region, alongside Bournemouth and Bristol, which has the third highest numbers of rough sleepers the country.

South West rough sleeping snapshot count autumn 2019 (map) South West rough sleeping snapshot count autumn 2019. Source: MHCLG.

Exeter was among the 83 local authorities in England targeted by the government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI) when it was launched in March 2018. The scheme is based on an earlier, similar initiative. It funds councils with the highest numbers of people sleeping rough to provide specialist services to help the most vulnerable people in society off the streets and into secure accommodation.

The scheme generated controversy. Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said that subsequent government claims that the number of rough sleepers was falling should not be trusted until the government addressed concerns that some councils which had received RSI funding had underreported the scale of rough sleeping in their area after receiving money from the scheme.

Exeter was one of several local authorities identified in the controversy. It reported figures that showed that the number of rough sleepers in the city halved between 2017 and 2018, from 35 to seventeen.

Critics pointed at a change in methodology from using multi-agency estimates based on year-round work with rough sleepers to a single snapshot count on one night each year.

Exeter City Council has switched methodology several times since 2010. Snapshot counts have consistently shown lower levels of rough sleeping in the city than estimates based on year-round experience.

However, after switching from an estimate in 2017 to a count in 2018, and reporting a precipitous drop in numbers, the city also used a count in 2019, which showed the number of rough sleepers nearly doubling to return to just below 2017 levels.

The precipitous drop in 2018 may partly be explained by the opening of the new RSI-funded Magdalen Street night shelter just before the count took place, when 28 people slept there.

And the increase at the 2019 count may also be connected to just seventeen people sleeping at the shelter on that night, when 31 people were counted as sleeping rough.

Exeter rough sleepers + night shelter occupants on snapshot count nights 2017-2019 (bar chart) Exeter rough sleepers + night shelter occupants on snapshot count nights.
Sources: MHCLG & ECC.

The city council has received over £2.15 million under the Rough Sleeping Initiative and its Rapid Rehousing Pathway since 2018.

When it received its third allocation of just over £900,000 in January this year, it said: “Unfortunately Exeter recorded an increase in rough sleeping numbers during the recent autumn count so this funding is desperately needed to ensure that future numbers remain low.

“The funding will continue to support existing projects such as the night shelter and our housing first project and ensure that these vital projects are able to continue after April.

“Further details on how this funding will be used to tackle rough sleeping in Exeter will be released over the coming months.”

However, the persistently high number of rough sleepers in the city has prompted questions from opposition councillors about the use of this money.

Diana Moore, Green party councillor for St David’s, said: “Rough sleeping over the past year in Exeter almost doubled, with an alarming rise in women sleeping rough. We really need to understand the reasons for this rise and the effectiveness of spending by the Labour-led council.”

When asked whether the city’s rough sleeping strategy was working, a council spokesperson said: “Comparison based on official rough sleeping figures does not convey a full picture of regional or local issues and flow (sources of people at risk of rough sleeping) and does not reflect measures of success.

“Eighteen of the 31 persons had no identified local connection to Exeter at the time of the 2019 count.

“Under the RSI programme Exeter’s commissioned services have provided a total of 61 new accommodation units including night shelter bedspaces and independent tenancies for persons who were known rough sleepers or had very recent experience of rough sleeping.

“The council continues to work to develop further services to help increase accommodation units for rough sleepers. It also works alongside partner agencies to continue to prevent homelessness and reduce the risk of further people rough sleeping on the streets of Exeter.”

Night shelter for homeless and rough sleepers in Magdalen Street, Exeter Magdalen Street night shelter

The relationship between rough sleeping and access to accommodation is complex. A council spokesperson said: “Not all persons found rough sleeping were actually homeless. Five had suitable accommodation available to them and a further ten were eligible to access the night shelter but chose not to at the time of the count.”

When asked whether the night shelter, which was then open only during winter months, was effectively suppressing the Exeter rough sleepers count, the spokesperson said: “It is likely that in the absence of additional safe, secure accommodation such as that provided by the night shelter, rough sleeper count numbers would be higher.

“However it is not necessarily the case that an increase would equate to the numbers using the night shelter as it cannot be assumed that all occupants would have otherwise slept rough.”

The government defines rough sleepers as “those sleeping or about to bed down in open air locations and other places including tents and make-shift shelters”. The definition excludes people in hostels or shelters despite such facilities often closing, as Magdalen Street night shelter does, every day before reopening in the evening to admit overnight guests.

It also says “the term ‘homelessness’ is much broader than people sleeping rough” which is borne out by the much larger number of people who are homeless than are counted as sleeping rough.

According to government figures, 267 households were homeless in Exeter at the end of last year, with 90 housed in temporary accommodation. This is in addition to the 31 people who were officially counted as sleeping rough in the city.

However a survey of the numbers moved into temporary COVID-19 accommodation under the government emergency scheme announced in March has suggested that official rough sleeping figures, based on snapshot counts, are far lower than the reality across the country.

It revealed that nearly 15,000 people were moved off the streets into hotels, B&Bs and other forms of self-contained temporary accommodation, nearly three and a half times the number counted at the 2019 snapshot.

England rough sleeping snapshot counts since 2010 vs March 2018 Rough Sleeping Initiative launch (graph) England rough sleeping snapshot counts since 2010. Source: MHCLG.

Exeter City Council has not confirmed how much it received from the government’s £3.2 million emergency fund to move rough sleepers into temporary accommodation, but it has imposed a service charge on those who were moved into the Great Western Hotel beside St David’s station.

Diana Moore said: “The council’s emergency housing team did an incredible job getting everyone off the streets and into accommodation at very little notice at the start of the pandemic. During lockdown, the council helped people claim housing benefit and universal credit and community services have done an amazing job to provide other support and meal.

“This is really a positive start. But it was not reasonable for an additional surcharge on top of the rent to be imposed by the council after people had moved in. This is not an ordinary housing situation and this charge and any arrears should be cancelled.”

Kevin Mitchell, Liberal Democrat councillor for Duryard & St James and progressive group leader said: “I am very concerned by the decision to issue a service charge on our homeless individuals after they were housed in a local hotel. I feel this was a wholly unnecessary step at this difficult time.

“My progressive group colleagues and I have been pressing for a change of heart. I would also call upon the Labour administration to agree to work with members of all groups on the council, so that collectively we can agree an action plan to ensure that no one in our city is sleeping rough.”

Great Western Hotel beside Exeter St David's railway station Great Western Hotel beside Exeter St David’s railway station

Meanwhile a report leaked to Manchester Evening News revealed that the temporary accommodation funding has been quietly scrapped, although the government has said councils can use their share of the £3.2 billion coronavirus response funding that was announced in March and April to support rough sleepers.

When asked whether any of the £2.15 million Exeter City Council had previously received in RSI funding had been allocated to cover the costs of housing residents during the lockdown period, a council spokesperson said: “This is currently being explored with a view to assisting needs on a case by case basis with a primary focus on extending discretionary housing and maximising move-on into more stable housing wherever possible.”

Diana Moore, whose ward includes the Magdalen Street night shelter, said: “A significant amount of the RSI funding has been spent on the night shelter, but with the risk associated with COVID-19 it will need to have a much more limited capacity, if any role at all.

“The priority must be to break the cycle of supporting people to sleep rough or in the hostel and ensure the next move is into long-term sustainable and affordable homes, with the necessary support, to help people cope and recover from their experiences on the streets.”


Emma Morse, Labour party councillor for Mincinglake & Whipton and Portfolio Holder for Supporting People, was asked about the matters raised in this story but did not respond.


 is a trade union official, political activist and former Exeter city councillor.

 

 is managing editor of Exeter Observer and a director of its publisher Greater Exeter CIC.

 

 contributed visual materials to this article.


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Rhian Keyse speaking at Exeter UCU's anti-casualisation campaign launch

News  ⁄  Education & skills

Education union challenges university to address widespread casualisation of teaching staff

Exeter University & College Union (UCU) launched an anti-casualisation campaign on Friday as a prelude to negotiation with the University of Exeter over academic staff contracts.

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Exeter anti-government protest Devon for Europe speaker

Comment  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter protest misses its mark by mixing its messages

One of Exeter's biggest ever street demonstrations combined anti-Brexit and pro-democracy concerns to produce a confused protest against government policy.

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Exeter Extinction Rebellion funeral march climate crisis High Street

News  ⁄  Climate & environment

Mock funeral march brings Exeter city centre to a sombre standstill

Extinction Rebellion campaigners brought the gravity of the ecological emergency home to Exeter on Saturday in a funereal procession commemorating wildlife loss caused by climate change.

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Exeter City Council public toilet closures Exeter Live Better hoarding

Comment  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter could do better - was there no alternative to closing so many public toilets?

Exeter City Council did not need to close thirteen public toilets to balance the books. The money to keep them open was available in reserves, but no mention of this option was made during public decision-making by councillors or officers.

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Exeter City Council public toilet closure notice

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Caught short - balancing the books in a hurry

Exeter City Council has unapologetically confirmed its decision to close 13 public toilets as a money-saving measure with full knowledge of its expected effect on residents and visitors. Can we expect other spending cuts to be handled the same way?

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Preston Street Union present SERGE/SURGE at Cricklepit Mill

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Preston Street Union rolls out the red carpet

The Exeter-based artists explore migration driven by the city's historic wool trade in new work commissioned by RAMM.

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Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate protestors with banner

Comment  ⁄  Climate & environment

Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate - the floodgates are open

Exeter is one of the smallest cities in Britain, yet it has produced some of the country's biggest youth strikes. Climate activist Sophie Sleeman recounts the story so far and explains what it means to the young people who are creating a global wave of change.

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Photo of The Jambassadors by Gabe Riedlinger

Preview  ⁄  Arts & culture

Jambassadors feature in pop-up Jazz Toast at Barnfield Theatre

Musical director Roz Harding invites us to join an Exeter College Music Academy student collective in a one-night-only experimental exploration of in-the-moment improvisation.

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Extreme Imagination - inside the mind's eye exhibition at Exeter RAMM

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Extreme Imagination - Inside the Mind's Eye

University of Exeter research fellow Dr Matthew MacKisack guides us through a RAMM exhibition that explores works by artists, writers and makers with widely varying visual imaginations.

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Molly Scott Cato at the European Parliament

Profile  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Is EU membership essential to our ability to deal with the climate emergency?

Molly Scott Cato, Green Party MEP for the South West, visited Exeter during her re-election campaign to explain why the EU and its Green Group is leading the way on a wide range of progressive policies.

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Exeter College students in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Barnfield Theatre

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Playing with gender expectations at Barnfield Theatre

An Exeter College interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream transforms it into an enchanting contemporary gender-adapted tale.

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Front elevations of proposed development at Mount Radford Lawn

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Mount Radford Lawn development proposals conflict with St Leonards community vision

Exeter Deaf Academy hopes to sell a school playing field to developers who plan to build luxury homes. Local residents have other ideas about how best to use the land. A dispute is looming over an historic green space driven by prospective profit from planning gain.

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Rainbow Trail LGBTQIA+ exhibition queers RAMM for Exeter Pride 2019

Preview  ⁄  Arts & culture

Rainbow Trail LGBTQIA+ exhibition queers RAMM for Exeter Pride 2019

A new collaboration between X-Plore Youth Devon, Exeter College LGBTQ+ society, Natalie McGrath of Dreadnought SW and Dr Jana Funke of the University of Exeter explores gender and sexual diversity across time, place and culture by reimagining objects from the RAMM collections.

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Exeter City Council city centre wards map

News  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Exeter Labour loses local elections in all three city centre wards

Voters in Exeter yesterday elected three new councillors to represent them in the key wards that cover the city centre, with all the city's ruling Exeter Labour group candidates missing out despite the party's confident campaign.

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Exeter Clifton Hill sports centre

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Clifton Hill sports centre – the background

Storm Emma met the Beast from the East and dumped a huge amount of snow on the roof of Exeter's Clifton Hill sports centre, setting off a chain reaction which has ignited two campaigns and put Exeter City Council's approaches to competence and openness into sharp focus.

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Jemima Moore campaigning in Exeter local elections

Profile  ⁄  Democracy & governance

Local resident stands as independent candidate in Exeter elections

Jemima Moore is a 36 year-old part-time primary school teacher and mother of two young children with little political experience. So why has she decided to stand for election to Exeter City Council on 2 May?

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Exeter City Council press and public exclusion notice

Analysis  ⁄  Democracy & governance

What does your council know that you don't know you don't know?

Extracting information from councils is hard work but increasingly necessary for local democracy.

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Greater Exeter Strategic Plan banner

Analysis  ⁄  Planning & place

Is the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan GESPing for air?

The Greater Exeter Strategic Plan has been a long time in gestation. When it finally arrives, will it deliver?

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Extinction Rebellion climate emergency protesters in Exeter Guildhall shopping centre

News  ⁄  Climate & environment

Exeter Extinction Rebellion stages climate emergency protest

Today around 70 people joined the Exeter branch of Extinction Rebellion on the city's streets to demand urgent action to minimise the risk of catastrophic impacts from climate change.

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Kaleider Mikrofest Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter Princesshay

Review  ⁄  Arts & culture

Out of sight, out of mind

A performance of From The Light of The Fire, Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter for Kaleider Mikrofest appears to favour illusion over truth in a confused rendering of Plato's cave allegory that leaves both performers and audience in the dark.

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Exeter St James period housing stock

Comment  ⁄  Planning & place

Exeter St James regeneration

How can the supply of low-cost, incrementally investable city centre accommodation be stimulated to attract and retain creative, technically-skilled young entrepreneurial talent?

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Historic Exe Bridge traffic

Comment  ⁄  Transport & mobility

Streets are for people, not cars

Cars adversely affect economic output, air quality and wellbeing, take up valuable space when parked and discourage people from walking and cycling when driven. Reducing their use would enhance Exeter's retail and leisure offer, improve public health and attract needed workers to the city.

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