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Housing

‘True picture of rough sleeping is needed’ to prevent people living on street

The Office for National Statistics found rough sleeping peaked in 2017 and 2018 in the UK before declining during the pandemic and men living on the streets outnumber women at a ratio of six to one

Rough sleeping statistics must be more accurate if the UK government is to meet its target of stopping people sleeping on the street by 2024, youth homelessness charity Centrepoint has warned.

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) report into rough sleeping statistics across the UK, published on Thursday, found rough sleeping peaked across the UK between 2017 and 2018. The numbers declined during the pandemic as rough sleepers were protected in hotels through the Everyone In scheme. The ONS also reported the ratio of men sleeping rough compared to women in the UK was six to one.

However, the ONS ruled stats were “not directly comparable” across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland due to devolved policy and different legislative frameworks.

Paul Noblet, head of public affairs at Centrepoint, warned that an accurate count of how many people are living on the streets in the UK is a vital part of ending rough sleeping for good.

“The real story here is the lack of accurate statistics without which it is impossible for the government to get a true picture of homelessness and rough sleeping and risks spending resources in the wrong ways,” Noblet told The Big Issue.

“Over the past year the true scale of rough sleeping has been laid bare and to give the government credit they have responded by providing greater resources which has made a difference. Going forward we need to see both better data collection and the higher level of funding maintained if the government is going to meet its manifesto target to end rough sleeping.”

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In the report, ONS described the “rich variety” of statistics on rough sleeping in the UK.

But the different sources of information made it difficult to compare between nations, the statisticians noted. This has been particularly evident during the pandemic with England counting rough sleepers on one night in autumn as usual while Wales suspended its count in 2020. Scotland does not count rough sleeping through the same method.

Statisticians also said some figures can appear to be contradictory. For example, official rough sleeping snapshot figures and management information in England showed a steep decline in rough sleeping during the pandemic. But people recorded as sleeping rough in statutory homelessness statistics increased in 2020.

However, some trends were consistent throughout. ONS were able to confirm a rough sleeping peak in 2017 and 2018 before a decline in 2020 and the ratio of men sleeping rough compared to women in the UK was six to one.

The report stated: “In each country in the UK, different data sources are developed, and approaches are undertaken, to produce statistics to measure and understand rough sleeping. This is because devolved policies on rough sleeping and homelessness vary and each department or devolved administration is responsible for producing statistics that meet their national needs.

“As a result, it is difficult to build a UK-wide picture of rough sleeping as the statistics are not directly comparable.”

Rough sleeping statistics have faced questions over their accuracy in recent years. The single-night count or estimate system used in England was queried in February 2021 when Lucy Abraham, chief executive of London homelessness charity Glass Door, told The Big Issue the figures are “essentially a best guess”.

The Office for Statistics Regulation has also scrutinised the official figures. The OSR “expressed concerns about potential risks to their quality and comparability” and described the statistics as “limited in detail” in 2019.

The UK government has faced calls to lay out its plan to end rough sleeping by 2024 with charities warning it will be difficult to achieve the objective without a clear idea of how many people are living on the streets.

Let’s put our arms around the homeless. If we decant them onto the streets it will be a mockery of our democracy Lord John Bird, Big Issue founder

Lord John Bird, Big Issue founder

A Public Accounts Committee report in March urged ministers to reveal its plan citing the discrepancy between the 4,288 people counted in the official rough sleeping count and the management information on the 37,430 people supported through the Everyone In scheme as of January 2021. 

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at homelessness charity Crisis, echoed the need for a clear long-term UK government plan on ending rough sleeping beyond the pandemic. Devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales have laid out their long-term plans.

“The drop in the numbers of people sleeping on our streets, including record lows in some cities, over the last year has been brilliant to see – lives have undoubtedly been saved due to the emergency measures brought in,” he said.

“But what we do know is that the most recent statistics underestimate the true scale of the issue. Without long-term action, we risk seeing thousands of people forced back on to our streets or pushed into homelessness for the first time as protections for renters have been removed and hotels start returning to normal business.”

The UK government has described its work to prevent rough sleeping and homelessness through the pandemic as “unprecedented”. A spokesperson told The Big Issue: “The Government has made clear that no one should be without a roof over their head. We have provided unprecedented funding to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, committing over £750 million this year.”

Now there are increasing calls for the UK government to ensure 2020’s rough sleeping decline is maintained. 

Lord John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, said the Everyone In scheme “undoubtedly saved lives but it also exposed the shocking scale of rough sleeping in this country”.

Lord Bird added: “Let’s put our arms around the homeless. If we decant them onto the streets it will be a mockery of our democracy and it will be a mockery of what we’ve been through when we’ve seen so many people pull together for the benefit of us all.

“Putting an end to homelessness means making structural changes which will prevent vulnerable people from falling through the cracks for years to come – which is exactly what my Future Generations Bill aims to do, putting a focus on creating sustainable policies now to benefit those who come after us.”

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