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.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.