Why we need to change the way we count people sleeping rough

Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive

Rough sleeping is the most brutal and devastating form of homelessness. 

Right now, thousands of people across England are living on the streets; sleeping in doorways and bus shelters, exposed to extreme weather and abuse and — in the worst cases — dying because of it.

For all of us working on the front-line of homelessness services across the UK, its heart-breaking to witness the impact of this situation through the people we help every day.

Rightly, the Government is seeking to end rough sleeping, setting an ambition to halve the numbers on England’s streets by 2022 and end it altogether by 2024.

Last week, the Housing Secretary announced that they were making promising progress - with the Government’s annual rough sleeping count showing a 9% reduction from last year. This is the biggest decline in a decade, but still 141% higher than in 2010.

Any reduction in rough sleeping is, of course, fantastic news and the product of a great deal of hard work by local authorities, charities and other organisations to provide support to people in the most vulnerable situation.

But Crisis and homelessness experts across the country will be treating these figures with caution. 

For a number of years, we have raised concerns that the data we have, while useful for showing trends, fails to capture the true scale of the problem. And we’re not alone. Last year the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, was compelled to write an open letter to Government stating that the figures from its counts are unreliable and cannot be used to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the funding being spent to tackle the issue.

Much is at stake here. A lack of accurate and consistent data risks us seriously under-estimating the scale of the problem. Crucially, it could mean the solutions needed to end one of the most pressing issues of our time aren’t being properly funded or resourced.

So how are we currently counting the number of people rough sleeping? Perhaps surprisingly, the only official data available in England is based on a snapshot of a single night. Here, a physical street count or an estimate informed by people working in local homelessness services is recorded.

But this isn’t like an audit of stock in a warehouse - you are counting people and people are inherently — and understandably — unpredictable. People experiencing homelessness are often forced to move between different forms of it. They might sleep in a doorway one night, the next they might sofa surf or find shelter from the weather on a bus or train. Others might move in and out of homelessness altogether over the weeks and months, unable to maintain the high cost of renting or struggling to build a new life, often dealing with a history of poor mental health and trauma.

So the government’s counts and estimates inevitably miss a significant number of people on the streets, including those not sleeping rough when the count takes place, those hidden from view, and those who aren’t bedded down for the night.

But there is a better way. The system used in London is the most effective in the UK and is based on daily updates from street outreach teams and homelessness services. Over the course of a year, it shows us the numbers of people who are new to the street, those who are returning to it, and those who have been there for many years. It also tells us more about the support people need and what led to their homelessness in the first place.

The London data shows that nearly 4,000 people slept rough in the capital in the three months before Christmas, an 11% increase on the same period in 2017/18. Yet, compare this to the Government’s snapshot figure for London published last week, which shows an 11% decrease, and we have to conclude that both can’t be right.

So what needs to be done? It’s clear we can’t have conflicting sets of data. Crisis wants to see the London system used to count people rough sleeping, based on face-to-face interactions with individual rough sleepers, rolled out across the country. With this information we will be able to properly fund and resource the services and solutions needed to end rough sleeping – and the good news is that we know what these are.

We need more truly affordable homes, housing benefit that covers the cost of rent, and the expansion of Housing First - the most important recent innovation in tackling rough sleeping. Developed in the US to support people with the most complex needs, and now being delivered across the world, Housing First has all but eradicated rough sleeping in Finland.

Getting the right data won’t deliver these solutions or end homelessness. But it will bring more light to a shadowy landscape, and show us what we need to do in order that we can consign rough sleeping — and all forms of homelessness — well and truly to the past. Where they belong.

For media enquiries:

E: media@crisis.org.uk
T: 020 7426 3880

For general enquiries:

E: enquiries@crisis.org.uk
T: 0300 636 1967