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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Rough sleeping: time to overhaul the way we understand homelessness?


As the latest official rough sleeping figures show the number of people on the streets in England has gone up for the sixth consecutive year, policy and practice officer Faye Greaves says it is time to overhaul the way homelessness is monitored and recorded.

The latest rough sleeping data has been released by DCLG and it shows that yet again the number of people forced to sleep on the streets has gone up.

The count, based on a snapshot of one night in August, is supposed to represent an estimate of the number of people sleeping rough on any one night throughout the year.

What are the DCLG figures telling us?

Well, on any given night in 2016 there were an estimated 4,134 people sleeping rough compared with 3,569 in 2015 – an annual increase of 16 per cent, 51 per cent more than two years ago and an eye-watering 139 per cent higher than in 2010.

This increase is not as high as last year’s 30 per cent jump but the rising trend is nonetheless apparent.

Meanwhile, a particuarly interesting aspect of the figures is the contrast between London and the rest of England. There was an increase of rough sleeping of just three per cent in the capital compared with a rise of 21 per cent for the rest of the country.

In fact London’s rough sleeper count made up 23 per cent of England’s total in 2016 compared with 26 per cent the previous year. And while this drop is small, if we consider it alongside the slowing down of the capital’s annual increase, there are indications that something else is happening here.

So what’s going on in London?

Well a few things cropped up in comments on social media when the DCLG figures were published today, but what stood out in particular was that in London there is a different methodology for monitoring and recording the number of rough sleepers.

The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) is a multi-agency database updated by outreach teams with information about their work with rough sleepers - including a record of each contact made on the streets. Funded by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and managed by St Mungo’s, this system allows for a more robust understanding of rough sleeping including individual’s support needs.

There are also some very interesting findings coming out of the No First Night Out project which works across Tower Hamlets and Hackney and the City of London piloting new approaches to prevent people from sleeping rough in the first place.

The findings so far highlight the importance of developing a better understanding of new rough sleepers’ routes to homelessness and using this information to ensure there is a streamlined pathway to prevent people from ending up on the streets or moving them out of rough sleeping.

This project represents a targeted approach and I’ve little doubt that many other local authorities across England are doing something very similar. But authorities outside of London are not required to report back their local numbers in the same way as London and the UK Statistics Authority has already criticised the official method of publishing homelessness data; calling on DCLG in 2015 to take ‘urgent action’ to improve ‘potentially misleading’ statistics.

There may be some other factors at play, but the approach to properly understanding the problem must play a significant, even crucial, part in finding effective solutions, so maybe it’s about time the CHAIN methodology was applied across the country.

The progress of the Homelessness Reduction Bill through parliament offers hope for the future, giving many more people access to meaningful help - but it also represents a great opportunity to radically overhaul the way homelessness is monitored, recorded and understood in England.

London’s CHAIN approach to recording rough sleeping would surely be more preferable and could help councils develop a better understanding of their local rough sleeping population allowing them to target resources that focus on prevention rather than crisis response.

As with the implementation of the new measures being proposed in the bill though, a truly effective plan to tackling homelessness requires adequate levels of funding. And to implement a CHAIN approach nationally local authorities need outreach workers.

The government has already dedicated over £100 million towards funding accommodation and prevention services for rough sleepers which can only be a good thing.

But that’s not to say we can’t do more and this must start with developing a better understanding of the problem. Guesswork will surely be less effective and only cost more in the long run.

Faye Greaves is policy and practice officer at CIH.

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Your comments

  • Couldn't ague with the headline, unfortunately the article reflects the established way of understanding homelessness. That is, it's a personal event that is best understood by developing a typography of the individuals. A new way of understanding homelessness would be to look at it as a system outcome. The product of the way housing supply and the housing market operates and the context of the welfare system. To give an example, our prisons are basically factories for producing homeless people with anything up to one third of those being liberated heading directly to the streets or the nearest homelessness service. If we want better outcomes we need to stop trying to "fix" homeless folk and start fixing the system that makes them homeless.

    Cain, Tony

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