25 September 2019

The August eviction of 10 rough sleepers from an underpass leading to the Houses of Parliament brought the homelessness crisis to the very door of MPs.

But UK politicians and policymakers lack high-quality, independent data to tackle the problem. Who counts as homeless, how much help they require, and the factors driving the surge in people with nowhere to live have become intensely political issues. Support varies from council to council: some take very harsh views on who “deserves” help and who does not. A 2018 Guardian investigation revealed that in the past four years councils had given thousands of rough sleepers and homeless people one-way tickets on trains, buses and aeroplanes – sometimes to leave not just the area, but the country.

There are now 84,740 households, including 126,020 children, living in temporary accommodation – the highest level in more than a decade – while the children’s commissioner calculates there are 92,000 homeless young people in families who sofa-surfed with friends or relatives. But charity Shelter believes the true extent of the problem is much worse, driven by spiralling rents, austerity and a lack of social housing. 

There are also issues when trying to calculate the number of people sleeping rough, the most visible but least common form of homelessness. The official figures showed a fall in rough sleeping last year for the first time since 2010,but highly controversial changes to the way councils record the figures prompted the UK statistics regulator to warn that the 2018 rough sleeper count should not be trusted. The government defended its rough sleeping initiative but has acknowledged the possibility of bias in the official data.

Even without definitive statistics, there is evidence that rough sleeping continues to rise. The “official” figures – a snapshot of everyone about to bed down or already bedded down on the street, in doorways, parks, tents and sheds – but not hostels or shelters – on a single night in autumn, suggest 4,677 rough sleepers. However, homeless charity Crisis estimates that 24,000 people were rough sleeping in Britain last year, and figures published annually by the Greater London Authority suggest 8,855 people bedding down on the capital’s streets. This is an 18% year-on-year rise, and more than double the number recorded in 2009-10, when 3,673 people were identified as rough sleeping in the city.

In June, an investigation into tent cities in the UK by the Guardian found that street homelessness was becoming more established, with a growing number of people creating small encampments. Reports to councils about homeless encampments increased from 277 in 2014 to 1,241 in 2018, and councils cleared more than 200 camps last year. Tent cities, whose inhabitants often refuse help from the state and live together for safety, could become a normal part of life in the UK, as they are in Los Angeles and other US cities, if sustained, well-funded help is not forthcoming.

Housing First – a much-lauded system now being trialled by some UK authorities – provides stable accommodation alongside health and wellbeing support. But most homeless people are not living on the streets with addiction problems; they just struggle to afford to live.

Without better information about homelessness, it’s hard to see how the issue can be tackled. And not all data is being used to positive ends: the Home Office is seeking access to data about rough sleepers in London to inform immigration decisions.

Source: The Guardian