Rough sleeping

When most people think of a homeless person they tend to think of someone sleeping rough on the streets. Sleeping rough is a dangerous and traumatising experience. Many people who sleep rough will suffer from multiple health conditions, such as mental health problems and drug misuse they are also in greater danger of violence than the general population.

It is difficult to get an absolute figure for the number of people sleeping rough. One reason for this is that, in order to protect themselves, many rough sleepers hide themselves away in places where they might be difficult to find and this is especially true for women. Forty four per cent of current rough sleepers surveyed by Crisis reported that they had not had any contact with a rough sleepers’ team in the past month.

Devolution has lead to a divergence in both homelessness legislation and the way in which homelessness statistics are gathered. There are also particularly large numbers of rough sleepers in London. The following sections are therefore divided into England, London, Scotland and Wales.


In 1998, the Government's first snapshot street count of rough sleepers in England, counted 1,850 people sleeping rough on one night . By 2002, that number was 585, a significant reduction of around two thirds. This substantial fall was achieved as a result of the Government and the voluntary sector working together. However between 2003 and 2009 progress stalled, as the counts hovered around the 500 mark.

These Government figures only tell part of the story and homelessness agencies across England often report seeing many more rough sleepers than the official figures record. In recognition of this, the Coalition Government has recently overhauled the way it counts rough sleepers in an attempt to make it more accurate. The new methodology consists of snapshot street counts and estimates by local authorities. There has also been a broadening of the definition of what constitutes a rough sleeper.

Rough sleeping on the rise

The Autumn 2016 counts and estimates suggested there were 4,134 rough sleepers on any one night in England -this is over double the number from Autumn 2010, when the figure was 1,768. 

However, it should be noted that these figures are a snapshot taken on one night and fall well short of what local agencies report over the course of a year. In London alone, 8,096 people were seen rough sleeping by outreach workers in 2015/16.


Rough sleeping, as with homelessness in general, is a particular problem in London. In 2008, as a result of campaigning by Crisis and others, the Mayor of London committed to ending rough sleeping by 2012. However, despite the support of the Coalition Government, this target has not been met.

When an individual is contacted by outreach teams or other services working with rough sleepers in London, their details are entered onto the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) database. According to CHAIN, 8,096 people slept rough at some point in London during 2015/16, an increase of 7 per cent compared to 2014/15.

CHAIN also tells us that:

  • 5,276 people were new rough sleepers, 64% of new rough sleepers were only seen once in the year, compared to 67% in 2014/15 and 70% in 2013/14.
  • 85 per cent are male and the proportion of women has risen slightly over the last two years by 1%.
  • 57 per cent are aged between 26 and 45 years with 1 in 10 under 25 and 11 per cent over 55.
  • Many have one or more support needs: 43 per cent alcohol; 31 per cent drugs; 46 per cent mental health. The proportion of rough sleepers with no support needs is 26 per cent.
  • A third (32%) of people seen rough sleeping in 2015/16 had experience of serving time in prison, while 10% had experience of the care system and 8% had served in the armed forces.
  • Where nationality was recorded, 3,271 people rough sleeping were UK nationals - 41 per cent of the total.  37per cent were from Central and Eastern European countries. For more information see 'Homelessness among different groups'.


In 2001, a major report by the Scottish Executive found that in a two week period, there were as many as 500 people who had slept rough for at least one night. These figures were collected by a survey of projects and services working with homeless people across Scotland. The report also found that:

  • Over 80 per cent of rough sleepers were male.
  • 45 per cent were aged between 25 and 40 years.
  • 25 per cent were under 24 years old.
  • Around one-third were in Glasgow and another one-thrid were in Edinburgh.

By October 2003, the same survey found that the number of people sleeping rough over a two week period had reduced to 328. This survey is no longer carried out. However, local authorities in Scotland do collect more detailed data on people applying for homelessness assistance than their English counterparts

In 2013/14, 1,787 of those who went to their local authority for homelessness assistance reported that they slept rough the previous night. The previous housing situation for 204 of them was ‘long term roofless'.


In November 2015 the Welsh Government undertook a national rough sleeping monitoring exercise. The exercise was carried out by Local Authorities in partnership with other local agencies. Its objective was to gauge the extent of rough sleeping across Wales via a two-week information gathering exercise followed by one snap shot count on 25 November 2015.

The information will be used by the Welsh Government, homelessness agencies and other housing organisations to monitor trends in the overall level of rough sleeping while also monitoring the effectiveness of current policies.

  • Local Authorities estimated in the 2 weeks between 2nd and 15th November 2015 that 240 persons were sleeping rough across Wales. 
  • On the night of the count, 25 November 2015, 82 people were observed rough sleeping.
  • There are 180 emergency bed spaces across Wales but on the night of the count only 11 per cent of those bed spaces (19) were vacant and available. This discrepancy was worst in Cardiff and Wrexham.

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