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 2014 counts and estimates suggested there were 2,744 rough sleepers on any one night in England -a rise of 55 per cent 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, 6,508 people were reported sleeping rough during 2013/14.


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, 6,508 people slept rough at some point in London during 2013/14, an increase of one per cent on the previous year's total of 6,437 but this is more than double the number six years ago. 

CHAIN also tells us that:

  • 4,363 people were new rough sleepers, 1,413 people were seen sleeping rough for two or more years, and 732 have returned to rough sleeping after a gap of a year or more. 
  • 87 per cent are male, 69 per cent are white. 
  • 57 per cent are aged between 26 and 45 years with 12 per cent under 25 and 10 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 has risen to 28 per cent, compared to 17 per cent in 2010/11.  
  • 33 per cent have been in prison at some point, 9 per cent in care and 10 per cent in the armed forces.
  • Where nationality was recorded, 2,945 people rough sleeping were UK nationals - 46 per cent of the total.  32 per 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 2007 and 2008 the Welsh Assembly Government asked local authorities to carry out rough sleeper counts for the first time. These estimated that, on the night of the counts, there were 138 people sleeping rough in 2007 and 124 in 2008.

However, these were judged to be an underestimate, as information from other sources, such as outreach services and other agencies, suggested that in Wales:

  • Between 166 and 199 people slept rough in 2007.
  • Between 128 and 165 people slept rough in 2008.

No street counts are currently conducted in Wales. There are however anecdotal reports of a rise in rough sleeping in Cardiff and elsewhere in Wales. 

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