New rough sleeping figures: Why is street homelessness rising again?

Chief executive Bill Tidnam discusses the recent increase in numbers of people sleeping rough

New rough sleeping figures: Why is street homelessness rising again?

In the period since the start of the pandemic, reporting on numbers of people sleeping rough has been varied, often not taking into account the various ways individuals can be, or can find themselves, homeless. While the most recent CHAIN statistics signal that there has been another increase in people being made street homeless, Thames Reach chief executive Bill Tidnam explains that understanding the issues faced by people experiencing homelessness requires more than numbers.

“The 3% rise in numbers of people seen sleeping rough compares with a rise of 21% the previous year. We need to remember that this covers the first quarter of 2020/21, where a record number of people were experiencing street homelessness as a result of the economic impact of the first lockdown. These figures also tell us that there was an increase in numbers of people sleeping rough with no support needs and more younger people, which seems to represent this same group who would not ordinarily have slept rough.

“Fortunately we have seen a significant rise in funding for services working with people sleeping rough. The resulting increase in outreach activity has meant that more people have been seen and recorded by outreach workers, making the data more reliable.

“We do have significant concerns for the future though; the European Union Support Scheme, with its deadline at the end of June, means that the 20% of people seen rough sleeping who are from Central and Eastern Europe now have even more limited options. This also includes people who have been housed in temporary accommodation and hotels as a result of the pandemic, projects which now face closure.

“A lift in eviction bans has not resulted in an immediate increase in people sleeping rough, but the impact of this will take time to show, as will the end of increased Universal Credit payments in the autumn.

“The availability of short-term accommodation through the ‘Everyone In’ initiative has been welcome, but it does not remove the need for the sort of specialist, high-support-need settings that will help people come off the streets and rebuild their lives.  Our outreach teams desperately need access to emergency accommodation that is immediately available, where need can be quickly assessed and suitable options can be identified for the individual.

“There are many reasons why people become homeless, and the accommodation available when people are helped off the street must cater to their needs and provide the right environment to gain stability and establish long-term options. The street is not the best place to achieve this.”

Thames Reach responds to new CHAIN rough sleeping figures

As new annual CHAIN stats for 2019/2020 show an increase in numbers of people rough sleeping, Thames Reach outline why numbers have risen

Thames Reach responds to new CHAIN rough sleeping figures

Each year, statistics on the number of people seen sleeping in London are published by CHAIN (Combined Homelessness And Information Network). Today, 9 September, annual figures covering the period from April 2019 to March 2020 have been released, and Thames Reach are disappointed to see an increase in numbers of people sleeping rough. However, it is worth noting that a number of factors, including increased outreach work and regular street counts, are likely to have inflated these numbers. So, while the figures are high and should be of concern, they are not directly comparable with previous years’ figures.

To breakdown the report: with over 10,000 people spotted as sleeping rough on the capital’s streets, this is a 21% increase on numbers from the previous year; however 60% of these people were seen rough sleeping just once, meaning that suitable solutions were found immediately for the majority of people spotted by outreach teams. Over 7,000 people were found sleeping rough for the first time in just one year. The disproportionate number of people from Central and Eastern European countries sleeping rough reflects the limited options available to this group and continues to be a concern, now making up 30% of the total. Numbers of people with mental health and substance support needs have remained the same at 47% and 39% respectively; at Thames Reach we are committed to ensuring that homeless people gain access to the healthcare they need, and work in close collaboration with health services to call into question the stigmatisation homeless people face regarding their wellbeing.

Looking beyond these figures and focusing more closely on the past six months, we are now seeing more people on the streets as a result of the pandemic. Many of these people are new to rough sleeping and it is important that we are able to intervene early and get them off the streets before this becomes a way of life.  A key part of a successful intervention is sourcing an initial place of safety and providing a quick assessment of options. This is usually done through the No Second Night Out hubs, but the high level of shared facilities means that they have not been open since March due to social distancing requirements. While this is understandable, without this crucial point of help there is a real danger that people who are new to rough sleeping aren’t able to get off the streets quickly and become entrenched in their homelessness.  While we recognise that running shared assessment space is challenging in the current environment, it is crucial that we are able to adapt and intervene quickly as soon as someone ends up on the streets.

Check out our website in the coming weeks to see how Thames Reach are helping people experiencing, and at risk of, homelessness. Through prevention, response and recovery support, we are helping people find decent homes, build supportive relationships and lead fulfilling lives in these most challenging times.

Rough sleeping statistics — understanding the method behind the latest street count figures

Catherine Parsons, Thames Reach’s Director of Operations, explains how the latest MHCLG figures on rough sleeping in England were compiled

Rough sleeping statistics — understanding the method behind the latest street count figures

Every year, on a nationally agreed date between October and December, local authorities across England undertake to collect details on the people who are sleeping rough in their area on a particular night. Thames Reach supports many London councils to coordinate street counts in which volunteers travel around the area physically counting and recording details on individuals seen sleeping rough. This information is independently verified and then submitted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), to produce the annual figures, the latest of which were announced yesterday, 27 February.

These figures represent a snapshot of a single night and can be affected by the weather, or by the availability of accommodation or other services on the night in question. The figure recorded could be higher or lower than the days before or after the count, and doesn’t indicate how long people have been sleeping rough, or why, or what their support needs might be.  

Most areas with significant levels of rough sleeping adopt the street count methodology. However, some authorities will choose to estimate the number of people sleeping rough in their area instead.  They do this using an ‘intelligence-led’ process that involves local agencies and other services like the local council and police. Some other authorities produce a figure based on a combination of snapshot street counts and intelligence. This approach is often used in rural areas, or areas where people tend to sleep in places that may be unsafe for volunteers, and it should be clear, when these figures are published, that the result is derived from an estimate rather than a count.

These MHCLG figures are used nationally to provide comparisons on rough sleeping in different areas and to compare changes over time. This year, they show us that 4,266 people were estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2019. A figure that is down by 411 people, or 9%, from last year, but up by 2,498 people, or 141%, since 2010.

In many of the areas where Thames Reach works, we also complete additional street counts every two months. This helps us to understand the scale of rough sleeping in hotspots such as Heathrow Airport, and to judge the impact of the work we are doing to help people off the streets.

While the street counts are a large scale process across England, in London there is additional, and more accurate, information available on rough sleeping through the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), a database commissioned and funded by the Greater London Authority. CHAIN data is collected by outreach teams, who record all their instances of contact with rough sleepers across London 365 days a year. CHAIN reports provide information about how many people are seen sleeping rough over a longer period of time, their support needs, and their reasons for becoming homeless. 

The latest reports from CHAIN show that, whilst the number of rough sleepers continues to increase, funding from central government is also enabling outreach services to move more people off the streets quicker. Between October and December 2019, outreach services in London helped 1,655 people into some form of accommodation. Having this kind of information available helps demonstrate what methods and services, such as our new rapid response team, are proving effective in helping people off the streets, and where we can do more.