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'A systems accelerant': Pandemic prompted more single rooms in homeless accommodation

Cooperation lead to very few deaths of homeless people in the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

People in sleeping bags in the doorway by the famous Rolling Donut kiosk on Dublin's O'Connell Street.
People in sleeping bags in the doorway by the famous Rolling Donut kiosk on Dublin's O'Connell Street.
Image: Leah Farrell

A REPORT HAS found that the Covid-19 pandemic has encouraged more single-occupancy rooms in homeless accommodation, and that measures taken in response to the Covid-19 pandemic could act as a “systems accelerant” for improvements.

This echoes comments made by the CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project Tony Duffin, who said that it acted as a “catalyst for change” in providing services for people who are homeless and use drugs in Dublin. 

The report said that “the very low levels of infection and fatality” among rough sleepers and users of emergency shelters during the first wave of the pandemic was due “in no small part” to their early recognition as a high-risk group for Covid-19.

The first of three reports conducted by the Simon Communities of Ireland found that homeless services underwent significant change from September to December last year in response to the threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among the actions that were taken to support those who were rough sleepers or homeless, was to: prevent transmission by hygiene and social distancing measures; Covid-19 testing, both on the street and in emergency accommodation; providing a space for self-isolation and quarantine; and special provision for people who use drugs.

What the report found

One Simon Communities worker told the authors of the report:

“In the first wave of panic, trying to find somewhere for everybody and simultaneously we took a room back in every service and we made it an isolation room.

“So, we had to set those up, take all the stuff out of them, make them extremely clinical, train staff – what to do if somebody came to the office saying ‘I have a sore throat’ or something. Getting themselves into PPE, get the person in the isolation room.”

Another worker said: “We did well on de-congregating, with huge support from the HSE… and the testing has been really efficient. That provides us a lot of reassurance and relief for staff that they aren’t going to be left with somebody with symptoms on sites within an inappropriate setting.”

In relation to rough sleepers, a HSE worker told the report’s authors:

“Nobody who comes into self-isolation from rough sleeping is going to be exiting rough sleeping… We worked very very closely with the local authority around exit planning… exiting people into more stable accommodation… Some exited to B&Bs, others to the Shelter, others to Housing First.”

A ‘systems accelerant’

The report found that “successful outcomes” in relation to emergency accommodation, more engagement with rough sleepers and innovative responses to drug use, came about through enhanced co-operation with local authorities and the HSE.

Recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing at the beginning of the pandemic included providing access to public toilets, handwashing facilities and showers; ensuring homeless people were not criminalised or fined in enforcing Covid-19 restrictions; and providing up-to-date health information.

Wayne Stanley, head of policy and communications at the Simon Communities of Ireland, said that this level of progress and cooperation needs to be maintained.

“The report finds that the success of the interventions resulted from having good services in place prior to the pandemic and the positive collaboration between services, local authorities and the HSE.

“Clients were assessed to determine who was more vulnerable to Covid-19 and if they needed to cocoon.

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“In conjunction with the HSE and local authorities, apartments, and other short-term lets were secured for these people. Thankfully, infection levels remained low among our service users and some barriers to people exiting homelessness were reduced.

“One question this report raises is why these measures were not introduced when homelessness was declared a crisis by government?”

Lead author of the report, Joe Finnerty of the School of Applied Social Studies at UCC, explaining its title ‘Systems Accelerant’:

“Responses to the pandemic by the Simon Communities – working in cooperation with local authorities and the regional Health Service Executive – may be characterised as a ‘systems accelerant’.

The term ‘system accelerant’ draws attention to the strengthened implementation of principles already espoused at policy level – the elimination of involuntary rough sleeping and long-term use of emergency accommodation and moves towards the provision of independent accommodation with appropriate supports.

“However, ongoing research is required to monitor whether the gains achieved by Simon services during Covid-19 will be maintained post-pandemic.”

This first report from the Simon Communities on Covid and homelessness focused on the challenges faced by individual Simon Communities to reorganise services in response to Covid-19 from a staff perspective.

The second report will focus on service users experience of how the response was developed and implemented. The third report will draw together these experiences and look at the impact that the learning from this experience can have on the national response to homelessness post-Covid.

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