Rough sleeper numbers 'down a third in a year' but charities warn figures do not show full extent

Gabriella Swerling
·4 min read
File photo dated 25/1/2021 of a homeless person sits in a window in the City of London. The number of rough sleepers known to be living on London’s streets has risen by almost a quarter in three months, figures show. Issue date: Friday January 29, 2021. PA Photo. There were 412 rough sleepers deemed to be permanently on the streets between October to December 2020, according to data published by the Greater London Authority. - Victoria Jones/PA Wire
File photo dated 25/1/2021 of a homeless person sits in a window in the City of London. The number of rough sleepers known to be living on London’s streets has risen by almost a quarter in three months, figures show. Issue date: Friday January 29, 2021. PA Photo. There were 412 rough sleepers deemed to be permanently on the streets between October to December 2020, according to data published by the Greater London Authority. - Victoria Jones/PA Wire

The number of rough sleepers has fallen by more than a third in a year, government data shows, but shows an increase of 52 per cent since 2010.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has released data showing that the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn has fallen by more than a third in a year.

There were 2,688 people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2020 in England. This was a decrease of 1,578 people (37 per cent) from 2019.

However, it also marked a 52 per cent increase since 2010 when there were 1,768 rough sleepers. This was also the year in which the Government first began recording the number of rough sleepers using the ‘snapshot’ approach to data collection.

Responding to the figures, published in the Annual Rough Sleeping Count, charities warned that the number of rough sleepers recorded by the Government is “a significant underestimate of the true scale of homelessness” and is “just the tip of the iceberg”.

The Government’s ‘snapshot’ method involves counting the number of rough sleepers on a single given night in the autumn in each local authority area.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “The huge effort made to help people off the streets shows what can be done. But the war is not won. No one should be sleeping rough during the pandemic, and we’re still a long way from zero.

“Emergency accommodation needs to be there for everyone at risk of the street, yet we know it’s not. Every week our frontline services pick up new cases of homeless people who are being point blank refused any help.

“Just one of the cases we’ve dealt with involved a frightened young man who was turned away no less than four times by the council in the dead of winter, because they said he wasn’t in ‘priority need’.

“Whether someone is offered a safe bed for the night instead of a cold pavement, should not be up for debate.

“The pandemic isn’t over, and we must continue to keep people safe. The Government needs to ensure its hard work is not undone by giving councils explicit guidance to provide everyone with emergency accommodation and support.”

The Salvation Army also warned that the Government figures showing a drop in rough sleepers across England could be masking “a surge in hidden homelessness”.

Lorrita Johnson, The Salvation Army’s director of homelessness services, said: “Any official figures that suggest fewer people are being forced to sleep rough offer a glimmer of hope.”

However, she added: “The Government can’t keep guessing about the number of rough sleepers, and a more robust recording method is needed so that funding can be properly allocated to cover the costs local councils are facing for homelessness support.”

Local authorities said the 37 per cent decrease in rough sleepers was due to the Government's ‘Everyone In’ scheme, where councils were instructed to rapidly rehouse thousands of rough sleepers at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as its Rough Sleeping Initiative which launched in 2018.

In 2018, the Government recorded 4,677 rough sleepers in its annual count. The following year, it recorded 4,266 and by autumn 2020 (just months after the launch of the ‘Everyone In’ campaign) the figure fell to 2,688.

As a result, charities warned that the annual count in November 2020 happened during the ‘Everyone In’ initiative when 9,866 people were already temporarily housed in emergency accommodation, including hotels. Therefore, anyone counted for the new Government figures is likely to be newly homeless or had returned to the streets.

The MHCLG said a range of factors should be considered when comparing the annual snapshots, including: the weather, movement across local authority boundaries, the date and time of the snapshot, and availability of night shelters.

Housing Secretary, Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP said,“Ending rough sleeping is a personal mission for the Prime Minister and me – and we have made huge progress since he came into No.10 reducing rough sleeping by 43%. There is more to do, but I am determined to continue to drive progress forward backed by £750 million in funding.

Government statistics on the rough sleeper count say that unlike last year, the ongoing ‘Everyone In’ scheme has helped to protect thousands of vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic, including those sleeping rough or at risk of sleeping rough.

“By November, the scheme had supported around 33,000 people with nearly 10,000 currently in emergency accommodation and over 23,000 already moved on into longer-term accommodation since the pandemic began.”