Homeless in Cardiff helped by COVID-19

How COVID-19 is helping Cardiff’s homeless

September 2019: 87 rough sleepers prepare for winter on the streets of the city centre.

BY April 2020 only six homeless people remained on the streets. Many were housed by Cardiff Council’s new initiatives to tackle homelessness. And that’s largely thanks to COVID-19.

It’s 7:30am and Jason has been awake for hours. He spent the night sleeping in an underground walkway in Cardiff city centre. He’s there most days.

It’s the closest he has to a home.

Jason has been sleeping rough for over seven years. His gnarled fingers would usually reach out to shake my hand. He’s quite cheerful, all things considered.

“Merry Christmas, mate,” he says to someone passing by.

They carry on walking.

But COVID-19 is an even bigger threat when you have nowhere to self-isolate. He’ll shake my hand when things get back to normal.

“It’s mental,” he says, shaking his head. He looks agitated.

“You don’t know what’s gonna happen next. There’s new rules all the time.” I hand him a cup of coffee and crouch down for a chat. He seems happy to have some company for a while.

“They say they’re trying to get us off the streets,” he says, then he gulps a mouthful of steaming hot coffee. “But I don’t know. I’m still here.”

Cardiff Homeless Stats

Jason is one of the few rough sleepers left in Cardiff. But the feeling is similar among those who remain on the streets – they’re scared.

“It is scary,” said one rough sleeper who chose to remain anonymous. “It’s scary enough being on the streets but with COVID… I’m from London myself so I just want to say ‘f**k it’ and jump on a train and see my family.”

“Who cares if I’ve got a ticket or not. I need to be home. Anything is better than this.”

Since COVID-19 took hold in the UK, Cardiff Council has ramped up its efforts to help rough sleepers off the streets. A £10m investment by the Welsh Government has helped local authorities to tackle homelessness.

Cardiff Council has taken this opportunity to step up.

“There’s no doubt that the Coronavirus outbreak presented our services with tough challenges and we needed to move very fast to help people off the streets into safe, self-contained accommodation,” said Cabinet Member for Housing and Communities, Councillor Lynda Thorne.

“It isn’t just about putting a roof over someone’s head, it’s about helping them with the very real and complex issues they have, and we have had some amazing results.”

Back in March, at the beginning of the UK’s COVID-19 outbreak, the council quickly housed over 140 people at the YHA and OYO Hotels – a programme set up in rapid response to the growing need to get rough sleepers off the streets.

But that’s just the start.

Cardiff Council has kick-started a number of other new initiatives, too.

Bute Street Shipping Containers

Bute Street shipping container project.
The Bute Street shipping containers provide emergency self-isolation for the homeless.

You may have spotted a big stack of shipping containers on Bute Street.

This innovative housing project has been in the works for a couple of years – converting shipping containers to create additional homes. They were originally intended for use by families facing homelessness and eviction.

But this didn’t go down well with local homelessness charities.

“It is appalling that our housing system is so broken that shipping containers are increasingly being used as temporary and permanent accommodation,” said Jennie Bibbings from Shelter Cymru. “We urgently need to build more social housing so that we can get families into permanent homes as quickly as possible.”

Thankfully, the units saw a far better use in recent months.

The Bute Street site was quickly repurposed to offer single homeless people a place to self-isolate during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The site was set aside to use for individuals who had contracted the virus to ensure they were able to self-isolate and have the support required,” explained Coun Thorne.

They’ve been occupied on and off throughout the pandemic.

And with a range of support staff on hand, they allow rough sleepers to keep safe while also receiving help and support for a variety of issues, such as substance misuse, alcoholism, and mental wellbeing.

The results have been incredibly positive so far.

“We did house an individual who had been rough sleeping for around 20 years and who would never come into accommodation. He came into the containers and didn’t want to leave and has now started to engage.”

Ty Casnewydd Centre

Ty Casnewydd supports up to 42 individuals.
Ty Casnewydd supports up to 42 individuals.

Unfortunately, the YHA and OYO Hotel placements were only temporary.

And with the scheme ending in September, Cardiff Council needed to find a longer-term solution to house those who were staying there.

Ty Casnewydd was part of that solution – a brand new homelessness support centre that has been launched on Newport Road. The site houses up to 42 people at any time, with full support staff on hand 24 hours a day.

“Having the right accommodation with the right support is crucial to being able to help people to turn their lives around,” said Coun Thorne.

“With self-contained accommodation, on-site support services and many clients remaining inside, we’ve had an unprecedented opportunity to work with those who wanted to take a step away from a street-based lifestyle, with many engaging with substance misuse services for the first time.”

Ty Casnewydd is considered a ‘medium needs’ centre – a place where those transitioning from rough sleeping can obtain accommodation and support as they move towards living independently once more.

It’s all about security, stability and ensuring people are supported.

But it was still nowhere near enough room to house the 140 individuals placed into hotels at the start of the pandemic.

Adams Court Supported Accommodation

Adams Court housing supports homeless people getting back on their feet.
Adams Court housing provides supported living for those getting back on their feet.

Another scheme was quickly launched at Adams Court.

Near Cardiff Magistrates Court, this project is similarly close to the city centre – the epicentre of homeless activity in Cardiff.

Again, this scheme aims to support individuals who need a little extra help. It’s not just about putting a roof over people’s heads – instead, the council wants to help them get the help they need to not end up back on the street.

“Too many individuals are regularly getting evicted,” said Coun Thorne.

Thankfully, this isn’t such an issue after the Welsh Government paused evictions.

“Eviction rates varied before the pandemic, but they were as high as 75% turnover in supported housing, resulting in many people continuously going through the revolving door of being housed then evicted and back out onto the streets – some as many as 58 times.”

Now, with increased funding, the council is focussing more and more on prevention.

But it’s a balancing act.

And there are still those who just need a place to stay.

Adams Court houses up to 74 individuals and is staffed 24 hours a day, with a focus on providing ‘intense support’ to these who end up there.

It sounds like a great idea – offering substance misuse and mental wellbeing services right where people need them. The entire point of Adams Court is to help people back on their feet.

And this is sorely needed.

Out of 18 rough sleepers in Cardiff during September 2020, seven were identified with substance misuse issues. Ten were found with mental wellbeing concerns and one with alcohol dependency.

Now, there’s an even bigger priority to address these struggles.

Hayes Place Assessment Centre

Hayes Place Assessment Centre will be the new rallying point for homeless services.
Hayes Place Assessment Centre will be the new rallying point for homeless services.

This is how Cardiff Council is planning to do that – Hayes Place.

The new facility near St David’s Hospital on Cowbridge Road isn’t open yet, but it’s going to be a game changer.

“Housing Assessment was always a priority for us prior to the pandemic,” said Coun Thorne. “But finding a suitable building and funding was a problem.”

Now, Welsh Government funding has made this possible.

The Hayes Place Assessment Centre will basically be a co-ordination point for various agencies to assess an individual’s needs. There’s a GP, mental wellness experts and even emergency accommodation on-site.

A cluster of 19 self-contained homes will provide immediate help for those in need. It’s not just for rough sleepers, either – the focus is on prevention, and stopping people becoming homeless in the first place.

“Work is ongoing in terms of prevention. We have around an 80% success rate if people come to us before they are homeless.”

Obviously, this couldn’t come at a better time.

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over in Wales. Case numbers are on the rise, and with a dramatic spike in recent months, homeless prevention is needed now more than ever.

Thankfully, Hayes Place should be open sometime after Christmas.

That means it will be available just before the anticipated January spike in coronavirus cases.

Although COVID-19 remains a huge risk for rough sleepers, progress is being made.

“The pandemic has helped us move quicker due to the huge amounts of money made available by the Welsh Government,” said Coun Thorne.

“Our vision would have taken around three or four years to put in place, but the pandemic has assisted us to bring forward this programme.”

You can see the effects of this in the data.

More importantly, you can see the effects on the street. There are fewer rough sleepers in Cardiff than there have been in decades, with more and more accepting help from Cardiff Council in the wake of a public health crisis.

The streets can be a terrifying place – especially during COVID-19.

But the pandemic has pushed the council down the right path. And their commitment to end homelessness could save lives and get people back on track.

Even if some still manage to fall through the cracks.

“It’s seven years now,” says Jason. “Seven years too long.”

Jason’s not from around here – not originally. He comes from Merthyr Tydfil but came to Cardiff because he heard it was better. He leans into his cup of coffee and starts rattling a packet of sugar, shaking it back and forth before tipping it into his drink.

“I thought coming to Cardiff was a good thing,” he said. “But it’s not – it’s a bad place to be.”

He takes another swig of coffee and tells me about life on the streets.

“It’s a very bad place to be, Cardiff,” he says. “Full of dickheads, full of idiots. You’ve got to keep looking over your shoulder, you’ve got to fall asleep with one eye open.”

“I stayed down the Huggard last week. Got a pair of trainers – as soon as I’m back on the street, I woke up in the morning, they were gone.”

“Honest to God – it’s like it every night. I fall asleep by here, but I’ve got to keep my eyes open. D’you know what I mean? Because the next man is fucking robbing you. Every night.”

Thankfully, Jason does manage to get in from the cold from time to time.

He may not be eligible for certain support, but he does spend the occasional night or two at the Huggard Centre – a local shelter that provides people like Jason a roof over their heads, if only for a short while.

Homeless in Cardiff helped by COVID-19

And with homeless figures at the lowest levels in years, things are looking up.

“We know there’s still much to be done but we’re working with local authorities across Wales to ensure help is available for as many young people and women in need of safe accommodation as possible,” said Laura Hallsmith from homeless charity, Llamau.

“The funding brought forward by Welsh Government back in March is positive and hopefully a real catalyst for change going forward.”

Unfortunately, Jason hasn’t seen that change for himself.

At least, not yet.

I finish up the interview and take some pictures. Once it’s over, I stick around to chat. It’s a freezing cold day, but he’s been warm and friendly the whole time.

He thanks me for the coffee. And more importantly, for stopping to chat.

“I’m here every day,” he says with a grim smile. “Come back any time if you want to chat some more.”

I thank him for telling me his story.

But I secretly hope I never see Jason again.

There are only 18 rough sleepers in Cardiff at this point – at least, according to official statistics. And I don’t want him to be one of them. I scribble down a name and number – someone who might be able to help.

He shoves it into his coat pocket and smiles that grim smile once again.

But I’m hopeful. I hope Jason takes the steps he needs to get off the streets. I hope he reaches out and finds the help and support he needs to leave that place and never go back.

I hope that I won’t find him here next time.

And that I won’t get that handshake after all.

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