How can we make the annual rough sleeping count more effective in the UK?

The government’s official stats revealed a two per cent drop in England – but homelessness organisations have made it clear that the figures are an underestimate

Statistics do not tell the full story about rough sleeping – but knowing the scale of the issue is key to tackling it.

In the last few weeks, figures from annual counts assessing the number of people sleeping on the streets in England, Scotland and Wales have been released.

England reported a two per cent decrease and Welsh figures were largely the same for their two-week estimates while a one-night snapshot showed a 16 per cent drop year-on-year.

Scotland doesn’t keep rough sleeping stats, but instead reported a rise of 284 applications on the same period the previous year.

Ultimately homelessness is a very complex, complicated issue and requires the expertise and compassion of humans to support people with whatever journey they need to take

The trouble in England, however, is that the government statistics, which showed that there were 4,677 people rough sleeping last year, are widely thought to be a significant underestimate.

It’s easy to see why – homelessness is chaotic by its very nature and so it is easy to miss someone while looking out as they may move around or be hiding or in a place of warmth given that England’s annual count takes place in November.

Taking the count over a longer period would be preferable – as Mungo’s CHAIN (Combined Homelessness and Information Network) shows.

Widely thought of as a more accurate count, rough sleepers are logged every time they meet an outreach worker on the street throughout the year. This brings together accommodation projects, day centres and specialist projects like Sadiq Khan’s No Second Night Out and is then cross-referenced to ensure that no rough sleeper is counted twice.

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Their latest figures were released around the same time as the official government stats, finding that rough sleeping in London was up 25 per cent year on year to 3,289 people, dwarfing the official count’s 1,283.

“It is a brilliant system – it is probably the best homelessness system in the world,” said World Habitat campaign impact manager Patrick Duce, who previously worked on the collation of official English rough sleeping statistics.

But at the moment, the practice is only confined to London, with no sign funding to take the system countrywide.

World Habitat also runs the European End Street Homelessness Campaign – a project designed to evaluate homelessness in 13 cities on the continent and share good practice.

Towns and cities like Brighton, Croydon, Glasgow, Leicester, Sheffield, Torbay and Westminster have exchanged ideas with Barcelona, Brussels and more since 2015.

The time that the campaign has spent in cities understanding the reasons why people are homeless has been crucial, according to Duce, who insists that this counts for just as much as assessing the number of people on the streets.

“Ultimately homelessness is a very complex, complicated issue and requires the expertise and compassion of humans to support people with whatever journey they need to take.

“So driving and inputting data into a database is not adequate to helping people feel like they are valued by other human beings and making the connections they need to make.”

Read more about the state of rough sleeping in this week’s Big Issue magazine where we put the spotlight on two countries who have taken wildly different approaches to the issue: Finland and Hungary. Get your copy from your nearest vendor now or head to The Big Issue Shop.