We can, and must end the rough sleeping emergency

We can, and must end the rough sleeping emergency

Rough sleeping remains dangerously high across the country. Statistics released today by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) show that we are still at an unprecedented level of crisis in the housing emergency. In 2018, there were 4,677 men and women sleeping rough on a given night in England. Although this has decreased by 2% in the last year, it has increased by 165% since 2010, when current records began.

But official statistics don’t capture the full extent of street homelessness. Today’s figures show how many people sleep rough on a given night, and are calculated by local street counts and estimates. They include people who are ‘bedded down’ or about to bed down, as well as people in buildings not meant for habitation, such as indoor car parks or stations.

Although these figures help us to understand the scale of the crisis, they don’t reflect the full extent of rough sleeping across the country. This is because:

  • the majority of data is based on estimates, where local authorities consult agencies (outreach workers, police etc.) who have regular contact with rough sleepers
  • they are a snapshot of rough sleeping on a given night in Autumn, when fewer people may be sleeping out
  • it’s likely that many people are missed, because they are sleeping in concealed locations or avoiding bedding down at night at all, instead riding public transport or walking the streets to feel safer

Behind the statistics

Every number in these statistics is a person enduring the appalling indignity of rooflessness in one of the world’s most affluent countries. We recently carried out an investigation to explore people’s experiences of street homelessness. We talked to 12 men and women who are current or former rough sleepers about how they became street homeless, their everyday experiences of being street homeless, and the impact this has had on their lives.

It was common for rough sleepers to be victims of abusive behaviour

While most people are shocked and greatly concerned when they see a roofless person, and want something to be done, others are not so kind. The people in our investigation told us they felt they were regularly at risk of violent and abusive behaviour. People reported being threatened with a knife, being urinated on and being hit – even being set on fire. The women we spoke to told us that they preferred hidden sleep sites to reduce their vulnerability to assault.

‘There were a couple of violent ones [interactions with the public]… I got attacked but they tried to keep me inside a room and I screamed really loud and I managed to get out.’ Woman, 30s

Street homeless people can experience difficulties accessing services

Many of the people we spoke to told us that they experienced difficulties accessing basic services, compounding their problems. Not having a fixed address made it difficult to access post, set up a bank account, receive benefits, and register with a doctor.

One man we spoke to gets his post sent to a homeless day centre, which is a few hours away by train. This means he is unable to get there very regularly and subsequently has had his benefits sanctioned. This was his only source of income.

‘If I don’t turn up in a couple of days, he [an employee at the day centre] sends my post back and that’s how my benefits got sanctioned.’ Man, 50s

The journey back to secure accommodation can be difficult

Even after people were able to escape the streets, they were still in an uncertain situation. Most people in our investigation who were no longer rough sleeping were still homeless, and living in temporary accommodation or hostels. Since rough sleeping, one man had lived in six different types of emergency accommodation with his wife and two children. This disruption affected his children’s education and meant that he was not able to keep his job.

‘We’ve been in six different types… It was so hard to manage a new job and keep the kids in school. We were really trying hard to maintain that stability.’ Man, 30s, with dependent children (five and three years old)

How can we solve this national emergency?

In the last year there have been some significant policy developments on street homelessness. In April, the Homelessness Reduction Act was rolled out, putting new duties on local housing authorities to assess, prevent, and relieve homelessness for anyone who is eligible for assistance (including people who are street homeless). Last August, the government published its Rough Sleeping Strategy. This set out the government’s plans to make good on its manifesto pledge to halve rough sleeping in this parliament, and to end it by 2027.

But new legislation and strategies are not enough. While they are a step in the right direction, they don’t make more homes available to people at risk of rough sleeping. Government must tackle the structural causes of street homelessness. Local housing allowance is the most important tool in preventing homelessness, but has been frozen for four years and now doesn’t cover rents in over 90% of areas. Rates must urgently be realigned to rents.

To end homelessness for good, we need a new generation of social rented housing; providing decent, affordable homes which people can truly afford.

No one should be homeless – street or otherwise – in 2019. This national emergency is not inevitable. It’s a matter of government policy. Sign our petition for more social rented housing.