“Rethink cuts” - call to local authorities with high levels of rough sleepers

New rough sleeper figures released by DCLG show the first clear national picture of rough sleeping across England. For the first time all local authorities have to provide either a count figure, verified by Homeless Link, or an estimate based on guidance. 1,768 rough sleepers were identified by single night counts and estimates during the autumn and winter.

The figures reveal some unsettling patterns in some local authority areas when viewed against the current backdrop of funding cuts. For example, the new unitary authority of Cornwall is revealed as having the second highest number of rough sleepers in the country after Westminster. Despite this it has confirmed that it intends to cut 40% from its Supporting People budget which includes support for homeless people.

As expected, London has reported the highest regional total of rough sleepers, with an estimated 415 people sleeping out any given night. The picture varies considerably, even within central London, with the City showing falling numbers following a successful approach to helping long term rough sleepers off the streets. At the same time Kensington and Chelsea, which is another authority planning substantial cuts, reported its highest number of rough sleepers since data has been collected. The use of estimates also reveals that rough sleepers can be found outside central London in boroughs such as Redbridge, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark and Bexley.

High than average priced accommodation in the South East and South West are coupled with higher levels of rough sleeping. Across the South East an estimated total of 310 rough sleepers includes hotspots in Maidstone, Arun and Crawley. In the South West, a region where local authority plans for cuts have led to street protests in recent months, the 270 people estimated to sleep out each night include high numbers in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset.

 “Despite the progress that has been made over recent years, any statistics that show people living in such extreme conditions are worrying,” says Homeless Link CEO, Jenny Edwards. “We owe the people behind these numbers a genuine commitment to offer routes out of homelessness. A time of budget cuts should be a time to focus resources on the most vulnerable people, not a time to cut away the lifeline services and those enabling them to rebuild their lives.”

Ms Edwards explains that practical changes to the way in which street counts are carried out were put into practice for the first time in autumn 2010. These have resulted in higher but more accurate figures. In the past, local authorities estimating less than 10 rough sleepers were under no obligation to submit a figure and were entered as zero in the count totals. Also, counts are now fully verified and include “rough sleepers about to bed down (e.g. sitting or standing near their bedding but not actually lying down)”.

Since that there is no way of directly comparing these figures with those published last July, so what do they actually mean?

“For the first time,” explains Ms Edwards, “we have a picture of rough sleeping in different areas across England. Throughout the country, there are vulnerable people recognised by this count who would have been overlooked under the previous guidelines. What we can tell from these numbers is where we need to target effort and resource. At Homeless Link we’ll be working with local authorities and homelessness charities to identify approaches that will help people to find a route off the streets.

One of Homeless Link’s core goals is to see no one sleeping out by the end of 2012. This means identifying solutions for people who have spent years sleeping out and for those rough sleepers with no recourse to public funds. It also means making sure that people sleeping out for the first time are offered help before they get stuck in a cycle of rough sleeping.

50 areas reported to DCLG that no one sleeps out. A further 50 reported just one person. At the other end of the scale 39 areas have more than 10 people sleeping out each night, of which 12 have more than 20. Ms Edwards believes there is now a secure foundation on which to build local rough sleeping strategies like No Second Night Out, the pilot of which is starting soon in London, and the 205 initiative that has successfully helped many long term rough sleepers.

The figures also indicate the worrying pattern of rough sleeping in rural agricultural areas where the economic downturn has left Central and Eastern Europeans workers destitute when work contracts have run out. 

“What these new numbers offer us is clarity,” says Ms Edwards. “There are examples in some areas where impressive progress has been made in reducing levels of rough sleeping over the years – places like Nottingham and Newcastle. It is vitally important this is maintained, while we look to help people left living so vulnerably in areas that have never in the past identified a problem and which may have few services to help.”