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Opinion

We know how to end rough sleeping – now we must grasp the opportunity to do it

There is hope that rough sleeping can become a thing of the past says St Mungo’s chief executive Steve Douglas.

Unprecedented has become a bit of a buzz word during the pandemic. But it really does define the response to tackling the unacceptable issue of street homelessness over the past two years.

When the coronavirus first emerged, we stopped talking about reversing the increase in rough sleeping and focused on getting everyone in, safe, and supported. According to government figures the Everyone In initiative saw roughly 37,000 people provided with secure accommodation and immediate support within a matter of weeks.

At St Mungo’s we support about 3,200 people every day and approximately 33,000 people every year. During that period, we also supported an additional 4,500 people and managed 30 hotels, with teams of outreach workers and support staff mobilising to offer advice, support and help, wherever it was needed.

This response was typical of many homelessness charities and local authorities and partners across the country.

We saw first-hand what could be achieved with the right funding, different organisations and government departments working together, and genuine collaboration between local and national government, between public health and the homelessness sector. It was unprecedented.

Never before had we seen such a cross-party, cross-government and cross-sector response – and it worked.

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As someone who has lived experience of homelessness very eloquently described it to me – the system that was previously a spider’s web which people either got trapped in, or fell through contracted and tightened to become a real safety net.

Two years on, what is the situation like now?

The data published today by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) shows that there were 2,440 people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2021. This is down nine per cent from 2020 and at its lowest level in eight years.

The largest fall was seen in London where there was a 10 per cent drop in the number of people recorded in the count, from 710 to 640 people. There were further declines in the other areas where St Mungo’s operates too. The south-west of England saw a six per cent drop from 350 to 330 people and there was a four per cent fall in the South East too with an estimated 450 people on the streets, down from 470.

It is clear from these latest figures, the success of Everyone In and the collaboration alongside the funding that was provided, that ending street homelessness is achievable.

But only if government, working closely with its many partners, remains bold in its ambition, and remains focused on what prevention of street homelessness means in the first place.

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So that a person who is experiencing homelessness and sleeping on the streets is no longer a commonplace sight in our cities and rural towns.

And on the rare occasions that street homelessness might occur, we should ensure that it is brief, with a swift path to the accommodation, and support that is invariably needed.

The Kerslake Commission on Homelessness and Rough Sleeping – chaired by former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake and for which St Mungo’s acts as secretariat – sought to review and learn from the pandemic response. It made a number of recommendations on how to truly end rough sleeping for good.

And it is good to see that some of its recommendations are already being implemented. 

Three-year funding settlements were announced in the 2021 Spending Review, for instance, which will give local authorities the confidence to invest in more long-term accommodation and wrap-around support that is essential in a person’s journey to recovery.​

We are also pleased to see the government allocate its latest domestic abuse support, giving local authorities the flexibility to spend the money on the most-needed services in their area.

However, looking ahead, as the cost of living rises and economic downturn continues, now it is even more important than ever that we just don’t celebrate the success but build on it.

We now need a long-term approach to street homelessness. A strategy that brings all responsible government departments together with a shared aim, spanning both local and national authorities.

We have a new secretary of state, Michael Gove, in the department responsible for homelessness, with a reputation for making things happen and an opportunity to take forward the positive things that we have learned from the last two years.

We also have today’s announcement that the Government is intending to set out its long-term homelessness strategy, a powerful contribution to its manifesto commitment that rough sleeping can be ended by 2024.

Perhaps at this moment, more so than in recent times, it feels as though it is genuinely within our grasp.

We know what needs to be done. We mustn’t miss the opportunity to do it.

Steve Douglas CBE is the chief executive of St Mungo’s

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