THE lockdown period has placed significant demands on a local authority’s homeless service, including a 525 per cent increase in the number of nights of emergency accommodation it provided.

A meeting of Darlington Borough Council’s health and housing scrutiny committee was told the pandemic-related spike in demand had also led to a huge increase in the amount of potentially costly specialist out of area placements, but everyone in need had been provided with somewhere to stay.

The scale of the challenges over finding suitable shelter follows charities warning homeless people’s lives will be lost this winter unless action is taken to get them into socially-distanced accommodation.

A group of health and homelessness organisations, including Crisis, St Mungo’s and several royal colleges, say rough sleepers face the “double threat” of coronavirus and cold weather this year.

They have warned social distancing and safety measures for homeless shelters are likely to be “all but impossible”.

The group is urging the government to fund emergency accommodation.

Darlington council’s leadership has warned it has already run up around £18m of coronavirus-related costs.

The meeting was told the council tried to be “very proactive” towards homeless people, but the volume of accommodation needed had forced officers to be reactive to ensure no one was left having to rough sleep.

Councillors heard the risk of infection from people who are homeless was so great that the authority “couldn’t allow that situation to happen”.

Alongside using the usual vacant council housing, supported accommodation and specialist out of area placements, the council had paid for rooms in bed and breakfast guesthouses and a hotel.

Officers said while the number of homeless people coming forward only increased by 12 per cent, the real challenge had been due to the number of nights people stayed in emergency accommodation. They added options available to rehouse people from temporary accommodation has decreased during the pandemic.

The meeting was told with the extra precautions needed, it was also taking longer to find and secure properties and ensure the provision is available to support individuals with complex needs, but most of the people placed in emergency accommodation had moved on to more permanent housing.