The government’s rough sleeping figures show a 2 per cent drop across the country in a year. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary James Brokenshire has called this a “step in the right direction” and his aim is to “sustain momentum as we move towards ending rough sleeping”.
But there is no “momentum”. Because beneath that headline figure, rough sleeping is under-reported.
“Snapshot” calculations of rough sleepers – in which the number of people on the streets are counted on one night – are not thought of by charities and local authorities to represent homelessness throughout the year.
Here’s how it works in England: on one night in autumn, councils either physically count the number of people sleeping on the streets or use stats from local charities that register rough sleepers.
But these figures miss the number of people sofa surfing, taking refuge on public transport or simply walking around, staying in hostels and shelters, sleeping in derelict buildings or other hidden areas, resorting to unsafe or unsuitable accommodation, or even putting themselves in hospital or police cells to get a bed for the night.
One evening, a homelessness outreach worker demonstrated to me how difficult it was to even find people they are in touch with, and who have regular locations where they sleep and keep their possessions. Because sleeping rough is so dangerous, with more than a third of people being deliberately hit or kicked, people often keep moving or hide.
So anyone that councils or charities don’t spot on that one night in October or November won’t be counted.
Plus, people classed as homeless who don’t sleep rough (the majority of homeless people live in temporary accommodation) are not part of those figures.
“We know that for every rough sleeper seen on our streets, there are many more hidden homeless people,” says Paul Noblet of the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint. “If the government is serious about breaking the cycle of homelessness, it must start by being open with the public and MPs about the full size of the problem.”
But as the government’s not saying it, here are the figures you need to know:
1. The number of rough sleepers in England is up by 165 per cent since 2010.
2. That’s 2,909 more people sleeping rough compared to 2010 – a huge overall rise despite there being 74 fewer people sleeping rough in 2018 compared to 2017.
3. The place with the largest number of rough sleepers was Westminster – the home of Parliament and Whitehall – where 306 people spent the night on the streets, up by 41 per cent on the previous year and more than double the following borough on the list (Camden).
4. Other huge rises into double figures include the London borough of Enfield, which increased by 767 per cent , Blackburn by 650 per cent, Corby by 600 per cent, Rugby by 433 per cent and Warrington by 425 per cent from 2017 to 2018.
5. Almost all of the major cities saw an increase, with London’s rough sleepers up by 209 per cent since 2010.