Coronavirus / Hostile environment

Homeless migrant left to sleep on a bus ‘with COVID-19’ despite calling on authorities for help

Posted by Eleanor Rose on 17 Apr 2020

A homeless man suffering COVID-19 symptoms was left to get back on the bus he’d been sleeping on after an outreach worker told him no state-funded accommodation was available.

The man had reached out to several government-funded services meant to be working together to help the homeless. They took two days between them to get him off the bus and into a hotel, despite being made aware of his situation.

Charity workers branded the man’s treatment “appalling”, saying it highlights wider problems implementing the Government’s £1.6 billion plan to fund local councils and other initiatives to shield rough sleepers from the novel coronavirus.

The man, whose application for asylum had been refused, phoned the Hackney Migrant Centre (HMC), a charity, on April 8 reporting that his calls to the government’s homelessness helpline, StreetLink, had gone unreturned. The man, who is in his 30s, was suffering a cough and fever.

HMC raised the case afresh with StreetLink, which acts as a hub for emergency housing referrals. They then passed it on to the Thames Reach London Street Rescue Transport Team, a charity that works in partnership with StreetLink with funding from the Greater London Authority. HMC also contacted the man’s local council, Tower Hamlets.

An outreach worker from Thames Reach visited the man and saw that he was sleeping on a bus, but said there was no space for him, according to HMC. It was four days after Unite the union announced that five bus drivers had died after contracting coronavirus.

The HMC caseworker also followed up several times with Tower Hamlets council, which told the man at one point that he was ineligible for support due to his immigration status, according to HMC.

At one point, Tower Hamlets told the man he was ineligible for support due to his immigration status

The council’s lines went unanswered on Thursday and most of Friday, with housing and homelessness numbers ringing out and no alternative contacts given through the switchboard, according to HMC. It was not until the charity published tweets copying in local MPs that the man was finally found a hotel room on April 10, Good Friday, by the council’s out-of-hours team.

The man was then provided a meal regime consisting only of the breakfast included in the hotel booking and – with no cash to buy food, and guidelines to self-isolate – he went hungry over Easter weekend.

“I find it shocking that there wasn’t accommodation available for a man who was sleeping on buses and suffering COVID-19 symptoms,” said Daf Viney, director of services at HMC, which is seeing increasingly severe levels of destitution among its clients as migrants’ fragile support networks disappear amid the coronavirus crisis.

The poor provision of food was not an isolated case, he added, in an interview with Liberty Investigates. “We often have to battle really hard to get any support for migrants and, when we do, we find it’s the absolute bare minimum of support is provided. For the good of the wider population, it’s vital that people’s basic needs are met.”


We often have to battle really hard to get any support for migrants and, when we do, the bare minimum support is provided.

Daf Viney

Director of services at HMC

The Government has scrambled to protect vulnerable rough sleepers with its £1.6 billion funding pledge and pleas to local authorities to go “above and beyond”.

On March 26, the junior housing minister, Luke Hall MP, wrote to local councils in England asking them to find rooms for all rough sleepers – including those with the stipulation in their immigration status that they have “no recourse to public funds”, including refused asylum seekers like this man.

The letter asked authorities to begin “triaging” those with symptoms, while the Government said separately that anyone concerned about a homeless person during the Coronavirus crisis could use its StreetLink app to report it.

Homelessness charities have welcomed the £1.6 billion package but warned of ongoing confusion and gaps in its implementation.

“There remain a number of remaining barriers to the government achieving its ambition … this remains a public health emergency and a race against time,” they wrote in an open letter to the Prime Minister signed by Crisis, Homeless Link, Thames Reach, The Passage and others

The Government has scrambled to protect vulnerable rough sleepers.

The GLA announced that it has housed only 1,050 of the capital’s 8,800 rough sleepers.

They said access by local authorities to the cash pot was not always easy or certain, causing unwillingness among some LAs to fork out for accommodation – while some homeless people were wrongly being denied help.

They called on the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government to establish a dedicated funding stream for accommodation and support.

The Greater London Authority announced on Tuesday that it has now housed 1,057 of the capital’s rough sleepers – but this was only about one ninth of the 8,855 its own records showed were sleeping rough in the reporting year of April 2018 and March 2019.

Thames Reach told Liberty Investigates in a statement that the operation to house rough sleepers during the crisis was complex and “constantly evolving”, admitting there have been “some issues”.

“We are working incredibly hard across London with our partners including the Greater London Authority in order to rehouse people sleeping rough during this difficult and dangerous time,” it said.

“Due to the complex nature of this process, the situation is constantly evolving and there have been some issues accessing accommodation and provisions in a timely way … We are disheartened to hear of this story and sorry that the gentleman was not accommodated as quickly as we would have hoped.”

StreetLink said it had checked the man’s case and was “satisfied that StreetLink team members have followed the processes correctly”.

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets council said: “A man did approach our Housing Options service and has been provided with accommodation at a local hotel where he has sufficient facilities to allow him to safely self-isolate.

“The hotel is an emergency placement and we are working to move him to self-contained accommodation, where he will be given access to food supplies and support so that he can continue to self-isolate effectively as necessary.”

They added that the man is not eligible through usual channels for assistance because of his immigration status, but that the council would continue to accommodate him until more government guidance is issued about those with no recourse to public funds.

This article was amended on April 20 to clarify that Daf Viney is director of services at HMC.

This article was also published in the Evening Standard.