Housing

The number of people sleeping rough in England could be double the official count

A single-night count showed almost 3,000 people were sleeping rough in England in September. But a new official estimate showed the true figure could be more than 6,600

sleeping rough homelessness

The official rough sleeping count has been criticised for years for failing to show the true number of people living on the streets. Image: Thomas Quine / Flickr

New government data suggests the number of people sleeping rough in England could be more than twice the official figure.

Traditionally official rough sleeping counts have been based on a count or estimate carried out on a single night in the autumn. This method has been criticised for its inaccuracy with counts that take into account the flow of rough sleeping over time, like the London-only Chain statistics, considered more realistic. 

Now, as part of the government’s strategy to end rough sleeping by 2024, new “management information” is attempting to track the flow of rough sleeping across England – and it makes grim reading.

A single night count carried out in September showed 2,900 people were estimated to be sleeping rough. But tracking the number of people over the course of September estimated 6,631 people were homeless on the streets.

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Both measures showed a sharp increase in street homelessness. The single night count was up 452 people (18 per cent) when compared to a count carried out in June and 491 people (20 per cent) higher than a similar count last year.

It was a similar story with the month-long estimate, up 1,063 people (19 per cent) when compared to June and 1,344 people (25 per cent) higher than the previous year.

Statisticians said the data “gives a fuller picture of the dynamic and seasonal nature of rough sleeping” as well as “illustrating the work done by local authorities to provide a pathway of the streets”.

The figures showed 9,452 people were moved into medium or long-term accommodation between January and September this year. Local authorities moved just over 1,000 people per month on average off the streets into supported housing, social housing, private tenancies or Housing First placements.

There were also an estimated 5,155 people living in off the street accommodation, including hostels, temporary accommodation placements, hotels and severe weather accommodation, down 6 per cent since June.

Charity Crisis’s CEO Matt Downie said: “Behind these numbers are the stories of people forced from their homes into a system which is at breaking point. Families spending the winter months couped up in one room with nowhere to wash or cook, while others are forced miles away from their support networks leaving them isolated and alone. We cannot stress enough how desperately bleak the next few months will be for thousands.”

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) began collecting monthly management information from all local authorities in England in May 2020, shortly after the Everyone In scheme was launched to protect people from Covid. But it only began publishing it in September this year, when it revealed 1,806 people were estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in March while an estimated 4,602 people be spotted on the streets throughout the month.

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “We know how difficult this winter will be and no individual or their family should be without a home during it.

“Our interventions are working – our Homelessness Reduction Act has seen over half a million households prevented from becoming homeless or supported into settled accommodation since 2018 and our £11.5 billion Affordable Homes Programme will continue the delivery of affordable homes across the country.”

Housing secretary Michael Gove admitted earlier this week that progress in tackling rough sleeping was a “big worry” in the face of the cost of living crisis.

Meanwhile, statutory homelessness in England rose slightly between April and June, according to new statistics also released on Thursday.

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A total of 72,210 households needed support from local authorities after being assessed as homeless or threatened with homelessness, up 1.3 per cent on the same period in 2021.

That figure includes almost 6,000 households who faced homelessness after receiving a section 21 notice – also known as a no-fault eviction. That is 75 per cent higher than between April to June 2021, although restrictions were in place to protect tenants from eviction until May 2021.

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Gove said the Renters Reform Bill to axe section 21 evictions will be brought forward next year, but homelessness charities and campaigners have called for the government to act urgently.

Fiona Colley, director of social change at Homeless Link, said delaying any longer would be “devastating” for renters. Billy Harding, policy and research manager at Centrepoint, said the government’s “inaction was pushing people into homelessness”.

Crisis’s Downie also urged the government to invest in housing benefit. He said: “This cannot continue. The Westminster government must invest in housing benefit so it covers the true cost of rents and get on with building the genuinely affordable housing we need. Only this will give people the security of a safe home.”

A DLUHC spokesperson told The Big Issue the government was “committed” to ending section 21 evictions.

There was also a steep increase in the number of people in work who needed help to avoid homelessness. The number of full-time workers requiring support increased almost 12 per cent with 5 per cent more part-time workers calling on councils.

Downie added: “These figures show that homelessness from the private rented sector is already higher than before the pandemic – this is only set to get worse as we begin to see the devastating impact of rising costs and escalating rents on struggling households.”

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