EnglishArabicChinese (Simplified)CzechFrenchGermanItalianPolishRomanianRussianSpanishSerbian

27 May 2021


Emergency shelters offer safety and support to rough sleepers who would otherwise fall through the cracks. Once lockdown has ended, there won’t be enough single room (hostel) accommodation for all rough sleepers in London. By reopening its network of rolling shelters, Glass Door Homeless Charity can provide safe accommodation and other support services for rough sleepers who have nowhere else to go. Glass Door is calling on the government to update the current shelter operating principles to allow rotating night shelters to run safely this winter.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Glass Door Homeless Charity coordinated the UK's largest open-access network of emergency winter shelters and support services for people affected by homelessness. Many of these rough sleepers were not entitled to government or local authority support and had nowhere else to go. In the winter of 2019-20, up to 170 people were able to find a space in our communal, church-based shelters every night, with a total of 829 guests safely accommodated during the coldest five months of the year. Our network of volunteers also provided hot food and a sense of community to guests, while our caseworkers were on hand to help guests find permanent paths out of homelessness.

In October 2020, the government introduced Covid-19 restrictions on homelessness services that made it impossible for Glass Door to offer its emergency winter shelter model. We moved from providing church-based shelters to providing single rooms in hostel-like accommodation. The significantly higher cost coupled with a lack of available and appropriate buildings meant we were only able to offer shelter to a fraction of the usual number of people. In the winter of 2020-2021, demand was so great for so few rooms that we had to close our waiting list after three days because we didn’t want to raise expectations of shelter we couldn’t meet.

The role of emergency shelters this winter

Glass Door’s experience running both communal and own-room accommodation shows that operating single-room accommodation alone doesn’t allow us to provide accommodation for everyone in need. It is crucial that the government permits communal shelters to re-open safely this winter alongside hostel accommodation.  We know: 

Emergency shelters can be run safely. Following discussions with leading epidemiologist Professor David Heymann, we are developing detailed operational plans to pilot and evaluate rotating shelters safely, alongside individual rooms in hostels for vulnerable guests. Precautions for our shelters will likely include a vaccine requirement, regular lateral flow testing, symptom screening, social distancing, and PPE.

Rotating shelters are the most economically feasible option for charities that provide accommodation for rough sleepers who are not eligible to stay elsewhere. The cost of providing a safe place to sleep in a shelter is less than half the cost compared to one day’s stay in our single-room accommodation project. Churches are often willing to provide free use of their spaces and access to volunteers for one night of the week, and grouping churches together in a circuit reduces the burden placed on any particular church.  Thus, the rotating model works well to provide seven-night a week provision. Providing single rooms for guests in the hostel model also requires a larger staff to provide a more individual, round-the-clock service, especially to safely manage guests with higher support needs. This is unaffordable for Glass Door, which relies principally on donations and doesn’t receive any funding that would compromise its commitment to an open-door policy.

Shelters allow us to reach more people. The significantly higher cost of a hostel versus a shelter model coupled with a lack of available and appropriate buildings (among other factors) means a shelter can support more people. (At Glass Door, we supported 194 so far this winter compared to 829 last winter). A shelter model would also enable us to continue providing an open access service to those who may not be eligible for our hostel due to their higher support needs.

Shelters offer a lower barrier for entry. For some entrenched rough sleepers and those who are claustrophobic, a homeless shelter can offer an easier transition off the streets than a hostel-type accommodation.  Shelters can provide those staying in them a greater sense of freedom and agency, allowing a route off the streets for those who wouldn’t find a hostel an attractive option.

Effectiveness in assisting guests to find permanent housing is comparable. Our outcomes analysis indicates that move-on rates (the proportion of guests that move into permanent housing after staying with us) are comparable in the hostel and shelter models. In 2019-2020, 116 of Glass Door’s shelter guests (out of 829) went on to access more permanent housing, compared to 60 from the hostel in 2020-2021.  While guests supported in hostels have benefited from increased stability that comes with 24-hour access to their own room, we suspect guests staying in shelters have a greater incentive or motivation to find move-on options compared to guests in our hostel model. 

Our homeless guests say shelters can help them to counter loneliness, restore their dignity and offer them hope. Our guests tell us every year that the warm welcome from volunteers helps create a community atmosphere in shelters. Guests tell us this can help them to counter loneliness and restore dignity and hope. Single room accommodation during the Covid-19 has made these connections more difficult to foster, and it’s worth emphasising that shelters can do much to restore wellbeing.

We are planning safe shelters now – and must be able to open them in winter

We are working to ensure we will have all necessary measures in place for Covid-safety, so that we can play our critical role in providing emergency winter shelters and other vital services to help rough sleepers off the streets more permanently. Glass Door is calling on the government to update the current shelter operating principles to allow rotating night shelters to run safely this winter. Shelter providers such as Glass Door need this guidance as a matter of urgency so that we can prepare to accommodate hundreds of rough sleepers, many of whom are not eligible for accommodation elsewhere.

We are calling on the government to:

  • Include in its plans for Winter 2021 arrangements for rough sleepers who are not eligible for publicly funded accommodation
  • Consult fully and in a timely way with charities providing accommodation for these groups
  • Agree guidance that allows charities providing rotating communal shelters to open safely and ensure no one sleeps rough on the streets of London this winter

download the Safe Shelter Policy Statement as a pdf

To ensure we can continue to run services, we are speaking to policy makers and local government officials to discuss how we can reopen shelters safely. Find out more about how we are working to influence policy:

To support Glass Door, consider making a donation or taking part in an event.