Official rough sleeping statistics - not the full story
CIH policy and practice officer Dr Yoric Irving-Clarke recently wrote a blog on how we should be gathering and using the best evidence to inform our responses to homelessness, and how the Centre for Homelessness Impact are going about building this evidence base. Today Yoric takes a look at the latest government statistics on rough sleeping in England. The statistics show a nine per cent fall in rough sleeping in the last twelve months.
These statistics are an important part of the picture as they do give an indication of the levels of rough sleeping in England and are based upon a local authority count of rough sleepers in their area; they represent the official count so will be used to inform the government response to homelessness.
However, they do not present the whole picture. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has called upon the government to improve the robustness of homelessness statistics to ensure they are in line with the code of practice for ‘National Statistics’. Since the implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, the government has introduced the ‘Homelessness Case Level Information Collection (H-CLIC) reporting to improve statistics in this area; and in London the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) has provided London based services with better information for some years. The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) recently said it expected the government to "plan for better statistics on rough sleeping."
The annual rough sleeping snapshot is based upon a one-night count by local authorities of rough sleepers in their authority areas. While this provides a useful picture of rough sleeping across the country, it does have drawbacks.
First, it does not capture the significant number of people who are living in temporary accommodation, ‘sofa-surfing’ or staying with friends and family because they have nowhere else to go. Shelter recently stated that as many as 280,000 people are homeless in England, with another 220,000 threatened with homelessness.
Second, being a ‘one-night’ count, it does not count those people sleeping rough throughout the year, but not on this one night. The BBC found that councils had seen five times as many people who were rough sleeping as reflected in the count; an overall annual total of 28,000 people.
Third, it only accounts for those people rough sleeping, who those counting can find. Rough sleepers often find themselves with no option but to enter unused or derelict buildings, car parks and other places to seek shelter and find safety. This not only puts them in danger, but also means that they are not counted by local authorities.
We know that homelessness and rough sleeping are devastating to people’s lives. In 2019, the Independent reported on ONS statistics showing that average life expectancy for homeless people was 44 years for men and 42 years for women, compared with 76 and 81 for the general population of England and Wales (in 2017). What’s more, we know that the effects of rough sleeping are cumulative – the longer you are homeless, the worse the effects and the younger you will potentially die.
It’s completely unacceptable that in one of the wealthiest countries on earth, people are still forced to sleep on the streets and not have anywhere to call home. That is why CIH continues to call for greater investment in homes, especially for the most affordable social rents – we need to build 90,000 of these homes a year to address our housing affordability crisis.
We also need to see a cross-government approach to ending homelessness including funding for good quality supported housing and a review of welfare policy’s impact on government meeting its objectives to end rough sleeping
As well as these measures to end homelessness and rough sleeping, CIH also supports the calls from the ONS and others in the sector to improve the counting and statistics on homelessness and rough sleeping. The first step to ending this problem for good is to understand the scale of, and reasons for it. Only then can we begin to plan and fund services that will ensure no one spends any time sleeping on our streets.