Figures show rough sleeping is declining. So why do there seem to be more homeless on the streets?

A rough sleeper in London, 2017. Image: Getty.

The latest official count of rough sleepers across England found a 2 per cent reduction from 2017 to 2018. But walking past snow-covered sleeping bags on the pavement of the UK’s major cities, it’s hard to believe that there’s been any improvement.

Context is important here: the total number of people estimated to be rough sleeping on a given night in 2018 is 4,677 – that’s 74 fewer people than the previous year. In cities where people move for work and opportunity, including London, Manchester and Birmingham, the figures are up – again. In any case, the count of rough sleepers should be approached with caution. These figures are only a snapshot, a head count taken in every local authority in England on a given night.

While it’s useful for councils to know, at a given point, how many people are homeless on the street, the data does not capture the movement of rough sleepers throughout the year, nor provide a clear picture of the number of people in need and what challenges they’re facing, such as poor physical and mental health, difficulties in accessing healthcare, education and employment and feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.

A complex issue

There are some areas where the number of rough sleepers in 2018 appeared to fall – drastically so in some cases. For example, in Brighton and Hove there were 114 fewer homeless people counted in 2018 than 2017, representing a 64 per cent reduction. Yet in the London borough of Westminster, 306 people were counted sleeping rough – an increase of 41 per cent from 2017. In my city, Leicester, the official count recorded is 31, the same figure as in 2017.

The overall picture is varied, so it’s tricky to pinpoint why the figures in some places improve while others worsen. It’s not just down to the cost of housing. In some areas, such as Westminster, where housing and living costs exceed wages and benefits income, the figures are high and rising. But in other cities with similar issues, homelessness is on the decline.

Funding certainly plays a role: as budgets for social housing and other public services have been drastically reduced throughout the last decade of austerity. There’s been an increase in rough sleeping and hidden forms of homelessness – such as young people sofa-surfing with friends – over the same period.

But there are pockets of funding targeted at reducing rough sleeping. In June 2018, the Ministry for Housing, Communities, and Local Government (MHCLG) announced £30m of funding for the Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI), as a way of supporting 82 local authorities to reduce high numbers of people sleeping rough, before the count in November 2018.

While there’s been a small reduction of 2 per cent in the official snapshot figures, it’s not really possible to say whether this is the start of positive trend in reducing street homelessness. For example, both Westminster and Brighton received targeted funding, but experienced very different outcomes.

In reality, the RSI funding will take time to affect the lives of people with such complex needs. It’s a welcome injection of funding for a sector that has faced relentless government cuts. But this short-term fix is unlikely to end rough sleeping any time soon.

The people behind the numbers

Funding is absolutely necessary to address homeless people’s range of needs – but it’s not the only factor. Getting to know the people behind the numbers in the count – understanding their stories and how they came to be sleeping on the street – can help agencies understand some of the complex and varied issues that lead to homelessness.

A team led by De Montfort University did this in Leicester as part of the European End Street Homelessness campaign, which has been learning lessons from across the continent and drawing on experiences from the US, where rough sleeping is a huge problem. We worked together with students at the university and a range of public sector and charity colleagues.

The report published in November 2017 recorded the number of people sleeping rough on the night of the government count (31). But it also included much more detailed survey questions, which explored the experiences of each homeless person. These allowed us to learn about the cumulative issues which had led people to sleep on the street. Many had experienced health problems and trauma.

Hearing these stories can help councils and charities to work out what sort of housing and assistance will work in the long term, to reduce the chance of people becoming homeless again. It can also give communities, media and local authorities the means to get rid of the stigma around homelessness, better understand the causes and target resources and support to help people off the streets.

Our project helped to secure RSI funding for the city, prompted the creation of the new Leicester Homelessness Charter and a longer term research partnership, to consider the benefits of a “housing first” approach, which provides a stable home and personalised support to help homeless people stay off the streets.

Getting to know the particular issues and stories that can lead to homelessness is vital to connecting homeless people to the right kind of help, and ultimately reducing or ending street homelessness. Projects such as the European End Street Homelessness Campaign provide a structured way to do that, for each local area. With the announcement of a 2 per cent reduction in rough sleeping, it’s now more important than ever to keep learning the detail about homeless people’s experience, and acknowledge the complexity behind the headline figures.

The Conversation

Jo Richardson, Professor of Housing and Social Research, De Montfort University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.

School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.