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.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.