Record number of rough sleepers – is enough being done?

homelessBy Heather Cameron

Rising for the seventh consecutive year, the number of rough sleepers in England has more than doubled since 2010. This is despite various initiatives over the years and a recent surge in political activity around homelessness.

The government has committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it altogether by 2027 but given this alarming growth, it is difficult to see how this will be realised. Perhaps even more concerning is the recent revelation by the UK’s new Homelessness Minister, Heather Wheeler, that she doesn’t know why these figures have increased so significantly in recent years.

Highest ever recorded level – an underestimate

The government’s most recent annual rough sleeping count shows the highest ever recorded level. On a given night in autumn last year 4,751 people were recorded sleeping rough – an increase of 15% on the previous year and 169% since 2010.

However, the actual figure has been suggested to be much higher as these estimates only count the number of people sleeping rough on one night.

Recent research by homelessness charity, Crisis, found that more than 8,000 people were currently sleeping rough across England, predicted to rise to 15,000 by 2026, if nothing changes. The base estimate for rough sleepers across the UK is 9,100 – a figure that Crisis suggests is set to rise by 76% in the next ten years. And even these figures are recognised as an underestimate.

What’s behind this surge?

Lack of housing and rising property prices, along with government cuts and welfare reforms have been widely blamed for the increase in rough sleeping. However, Heather Wheeler has also said that she did not accept the suggestion that welfare reforms and council cuts had contributed to the rise.

Despite admitting she did not know the reason for the huge increase, Wheeler did hint at two contributory factors. She referred to a “classic” reason for rough sleeping as coming out of prison with no support and “a real problem in London with people coming over [mainly from Europe] for jobs, sofa surfing with friends, and then the job changes and they have a problem.”

Wheeler also highlighted the lack of supply of affordable housing as the real issue. Indeed, Crisis has also highlighted this as a particular issue that, if addressed, could lead to ‘particularly noteworthy’ reductions in rough sleeping.

But while lack of supply is cited as an issue by most, so too are welfare reforms and funding cuts – including by a recent parliamentary briefing paper:

“Factors identified as contributing to the ongoing flow of new rough sleepers to the streets include: welfare reforms, particularly reductions in entitlement to Housing Benefit/Local Housing Allowance; reduced investment by local authorities in homeless services; and flows of non-UK nationals who are unable to access benefits.”

A recent report from youth homelessness charity Centrepoint reported that 85% of local authorities said welfare reform aimed at young people is a barrier to delivering housing duties. It also highlighted a need for more funding.

Findings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies have also shown that government cuts mean that housing benefit no longer covers rent for almost 70% of people in social housing.

‘A step in the right direction’

Successive governments have introduced initiatives to tackle rough sleeping, including: The Rough Sleepers InitiativeNo One Left Out and No Second Night Out.

More recently, there has been a surge of activity around homelessness which could provide grounds for optimism. The government has pledged £28 million for Housing First pilots in the West Midlands, Manchester and Liverpool. This approach has been proven to reduce rough sleeping in other countries and a recent study in the Liverpool City region concluded the scheme could save £4 million compared with current homelessness services.

The Homelessness Reduction Act, introduced last month, gives local authorities new responsibilities to step in earlier to prevent homelessness and support more people facing homelessness. Concerns have however been raised that councils will be unable to fulfil their new duties due to a lack of funding.

The government has also announced a new package of measures to tackle rough sleeping, which includes:

  • a new Rough Sleeping Team made up of rough sleeping and homelessness experts to drive reductions in rough sleeping
  • a £30 million fund for 2018 to 2019 with further funding agreed for 2019 to 2020 for local authorities with high levels of rough sleeping
  • £100,000 funding to support frontline Rough Sleeping workers to make sure they have the right skills and knowledge to work with vulnerable rough sleepers.

Crisis has described the government’s new rough sleeping initiative as “a step in the right direction” but argues that “it falls short of what’s required to truly end rough sleeping”.

Way forward

The evidence suggests that the rise in rough sleeping numbers is down to a number of contributory factors, including welfare reforms and funding cuts. And while the recent surge in activity is welcomed, frustration remains over the government’s failure to recognise the “baleful influence of welfare reforms”.

The chief executive of Crisis has argued that if the government doesn’t invest in social housing and change direction on welfare reform, any reduction in rough sleeping won’t be sustainable:

“We must acknowledge that the continued rise in rough sleeping is a result of welfare cuts, decline in social housing, soaring private rents and chronically underfunded support services. Until we do we will only be tackling the symptoms and not the causes.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our other posts on housing solutions for prisoners and Finland’s Housing First approach.

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