Why we shouldn't ignore London's efforts to tackle rough sleeping

No second night out.

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Recently, a blogpost on this site told the story of a 17-year-old who had slept rough on night buses in London. It was a moving story.  It was used to claim that the Mayor of London’s work on rough sleeping had failed. Yet there are 4,000 other stories that could be told. These are people (like Colin, who had just 56 pence when found) who have been helped by No Second Night Out – a pioneering project, funded by this Mayor, rapidly responding to anyone found sleeping rough.  The project’s success means three out of four new rough sleepers spend just 24 hours on the street. It is part of a transformation happening in street homelessness in London. 

No Second Night Out is run on behalf of the Greater London Authority (GLA) by St Mungo’s Broadway. It is overseen by a fantastic individual who previously worked at another homeless charity, Thames Reach, which delivered a highly successful GLA-funded project to tackle rough sleeping on buses. The legacy of this project is that it is now exceptionally unusual to find someone sleeping rough on London’s buses. It is also unusual to find someone under the age of 18 sleeping rough on London’s streets – comprehensive, independent figures that record outreach team’s every contact with a rough sleeper reveal just eleven people under that age were met last year.   Nor will many people be on the streets throughout the whole year.  Just 3 per cent– or 164 people – were met by outreach teams in every quarter and it is far more likely that you will see a foreign national sleeping rough.  Over half of rough sleepers are non-UK nationals, the majority Central and Eastern Europeans, presenting complex cases with no easy answers.

Far from "doing nothing about it", City Hall is leading a comprehensive plan to prioritise rough sleeping, innovate, and coordinate services. The GLA is investing around £9m annually into homelessness services, prioritising rapid response to prevent entrenchment on the street. No Second Night Out is the flagship project but the breadth of City Hall’s investment recognises the complexity of the problem, where the reasons that lead someone to sleep rough are often highly personal and more than housing itself. The GLA has supported a street doctor because the health needs are so much greater; pressed A&E departments to discharge people to services rather than the street; piloted ‘Housing First’ to support former entrenched rough sleepers. The GLA, together with government, launched London’s first Social Impact Bond, a new and innovative way of attracting funding for public services combining social investment to fund service delivery with receiving a payment for outcomes achieved. The £5m Social Impact Bond supports hundreds of people vulnerable to rough sleeping over several years – not only to sustain a tenancy but improve health and find employment.  

The ambition to end rough sleeping remains, and the Mayor, borough councils, and charities are working to achieve that. City Hall is addressing the structural failures in our housing market, stemming from a 30-year failure to build enough homes to meet London’s population growth. The highest housebuilding target has been set by the Mayor, a record 100,000 low-cost homes to buy or rent are being built, public land is being released and Housing Zones (a new initiative to accelerate housing delivery in areas with high development potential) launched. Improvements to the private rented sector are being made with the first set of standards introduced for London. 

The capital is arguably one of the most progressive cities tackling rough sleeping. If you want evidence of that, consider the situation in other world cities, such as New York or Paris. Indeed, earlier this month, the new Deputy Mayor for New York, Alicia Glen, told the Guardian that over 50,000 people sleep every night in New York City’s homeless shelters, including 30,000 children. There remain massive challenges, but we shouldn’t ignore the progress that is being made.

Richard Blakeway is Deputy Mayor for housing, land and property