Posted on January 26, 2018 by Matthew Wilkins
On 25th January, the government published its annual rough sleeper count, and confirmed what is already apparent to anybody who spends time on the streets of towns and cities in England: homelessness in its most visible form has increased substantially in recent years. Beyond the headline-grabbing rough sleeping figures, what do the numbers really tell us about what is happening with homelessness in England, and how can government achieve its aim of eliminating rough sleeping by 2027?
Just how many people are sleeping rough?
The government’s January 2018 figures estimate that the number of rough sleepers in England on one night in the autumn of 2017 was 4,751, up by 15% from the previous year, and the seventh consecutive year in which it has increased. Rough sleeping has now risen by 169% since 2010, and can be found not just in its traditional urban centres but in a range of new locations across the country. This increase has occurred despite a government target to cut rough sleeping by half by 2022, and end it altogether by 2027.
These estimates really only give us a glimpse of what is actually happening with street homelessness. The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government itself describes the figures as estimates; they are a “single night snapshot of rough sleeping that is taken annually in England using street counts and intelligence driven estimates.” So, the real number is much higher.
An alternative source of information on rough sleepers is the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), a multi-agency database recording information about people seen rough sleeping by outreach teams in London. According to this, more than 8,000 rough sleepers were seen by outreach workers in London, alone, in 2016-17. The homelessness charity Crisis estimates that as many as 9,100 people are currently sleeping rough in England.
So, although important, it is best to use the government’s rough sleeping figures as an indication of a trend. And, of course, as confirmation of what is extremely visible and notable.
The tip of the iceberg
In 2017, more than 79,000 households – containing more than 121,000 children – had been placed in temporary accommodation by their local authorities. Beyond this, no figure exists for the “hidden homeless”, such as those in hostels or sofa-surfing between families and friends. As shown in our September 2017 report, Homelessness, most homelessness is not in public spaces:
Behind the headline figures
These health warnings aside, the latest figures do tell us that the number of rough sleepers is rising. And within the government’s own estimates, there are several important points to note:
The number of people rough sleeping is increasing: In 2016-17 the number of rough sleepers rose by 15% – which is almost identical to the 16% increase that occurred the previous year.
There was a substantial increase in rough sleepers in London and certain boroughs are now experiencing significant pressure. In London the number of rough sleepers increased by 18% in 2016-17 – this contrasts with just 3% the year before. The government estimates that there are now more than 1,100 rough sleepers in the capital. The number of rough sleepers doubled or nearly doubled in several boroughs both in inner and outer London: Camden, Ealing, Islington and Lambeth, with Newham and Tower Hamlets not far behind. Camden recorded the largest increase in 2016-17, from 17 to 127.
Rough sleeping is not just a London problem, and it isn’t only happening in towns and cities you would expect to see it. More than 3,600 rough sleepers in the government’s estimate were outside of London. Other traditional centres of rough sleeping generally recorded high rough sleeping populations, including Manchester and Bristol (which, respectively, recorded 94 and 86 rough sleepers in 2016-17). However, almost half of the increase in rough sleepers occurred in eight local authorities: Brighton and Hove, Medway, Southend-on-Sea, Oxford, Tameside, Worthing, Salford and Eastbourne. With the exception of Brighton and Hove, these are not areas historically associated with entrenched rough sleeping. Yet, between them, in 2016-17 they hosted nearly 350 rough sleepers.
Most rough sleepers are male and UK nationals. In 2016-17 86% of rough sleepers were male and, across England as a whole, around 80% of rough sleepers were UK nationals. In London, however, just 40% were UK nationals, and almost 30% from EU member states.
There is a high prevalence of mental illness and alcohol and drug dependency among rough sleepers. Of the 70% of rough sleepers who had a support needs assessment recorded, 47% had mental health support needs, 44% had alcohol support needs and 35% had drug support needs.
In short, the growth seen since 2010 in the number of rough sleepers shows no sign of halting, and rough sleepers are now to be found in many towns and cities not previously associated with rough sleeping.
Despite the rise of homelessness, for many years the government’s approach to tackling this challenge was deliberately light touch, which is difficult to understand when faced with such a visibly growing problem.
The government is now taking a stronger approach to tackling all forms of homelessness, as shown in our recent report, Homelessness. It is seeking to improve the data it holds on homeless people, and is implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act, which will increase the prevention role played by councils. It has also established a cross-government homelessness task force.
All of these measures will be needed if government is to achieve its target of halving rough sleeping by 2022, and abolishing it altogether by 2027.
We would welcome your comments and invite you to contact us if you would like to discuss any issues raised by this blog.
A further article by Matthew Wilkins on homelessness and what councils are doing to address it will be published later in February as part of the ‘State of the Public Sector, 2018’ report, which will be available for download from the Public Sector Show’s website (scroll to bottom of the home page).
You can also explore the scale of homelessness across the country in our interactive data visualisation.
About the author: Matthew Wilkins works on our team producing value for money reports on local government and the Ministry for Housing and Local Government. He manages a portfolio of studies on topics including housing and English devolution, and was the lead author of the NAO’s September 2017 report on homelessness. He has also previously written reports on a range of subjects including local economic growth, border security, violent crime, and stroke care.
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