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What can the latest rough sleeping statistics tell us about progress during the pandemic?

Cuchulainn Sutton-Hamilton, Research Officer

Today the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published the annual rough sleeping counts and estimates for England. These figures show there were 2,688 people thought to be rough sleeping on a single night in autumn 2020, a decrease of 37% since the same point the previous year.

What is behind this significant reduction? During the pandemic, there has been huge efforts made to locate and support people most exposed to the risk of coronavirus across England. What became known as ‘Everyone In’ has seen 37,000 people who had been sleeping rough or were in unsafe accommodation moved into hotels and other emergency accommodation by January. This has undoubtedly saved lives and reduced the burden on health services. In addition, protections including the eviction ban have prevented many people from becoming homeless because of the financial impact of the pandemic.

While the figures released today are a snapshot in time and don’t show the full picture, the impact of these measures can be clearly seen by the large reduction from the 4,266 people that were estimated to be sleeping rough the previous year. This is the lowest level of rough sleeping since 2013.

Although this decrease is a step in the right direction, it is against a backdrop of increased demand for services and a continuing number of people being forced to sleep rough for the first time. In London alone there were 6,000 new rough sleepers seen between April and December. 

Looking at the numbers in more detail, the data shows that there has been a similar reduction in all English regions apart from the North East which saw a small increase of 7%. As with previous years, London and the South-East accounts for a large proportion of rough sleepers - 44% of the national figure. Looking at the profile of people sleeping rough, the majority are male, aged over 26 years old and from the UK.

While today’s figures give us an insight into the national and local trends in rough sleeping, they are a snapshot and don’t give a true reflection of the number of people sleeping on our streets. This is why over the past five years Crisis has worked with Heriot- Watt University to produce the annual core homelessness figures based on nine separate data sources. These figures show that last year an estimated 10,500 people are sleeping on the streets on any given night – much higher than the official statistics released today suggest and reinforces the need to improve how we measure and collect data on rough sleeping.

What is clear from all the data we have on rough sleeping is the support provided by ‘Everyone In’ has had a real impact, ensuring people are not forced to sleep on our streets during this public health emergency. Going forward we now need to build on these successes and focus on the long-term solutions that will bring us closer to ending homelessness for good. This needs to include a national rollout of Housing First and investment in social housing. To make sure these interventions have the intended impact this must be underpinned by an accepted and accurate system for tracking the true scale of rough sleeping, such as a national CHAIN like database. This will help us to understand what solutions are working and what we need to do to end rough sleeping and all forms of homelessness for good.

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