Fact Check: has the number of rough sleepers gone down?

How have the homeless fared under the coalition? Anthony Devlin/PA Archive

We’ve got to also help those people who are sleeping rough and their numbers are down under this government.

David Cameron, prime minister, in answer to question from a member of the audience on BBC Newsbeat.

Street homelessness has remained a policy priority under the coalition government, but there has not been a reduction in the number of people sleeping rough as David Cameron claimed. On the contrary, official figures indicate that rough sleeping has increased by 55% in England since the current coalition came into power.

Despite requesting clarification from The Conservative party, The Conversation has not managed to establish what time period or geographical area Cameron is referring to. But even with clearly defined parameters his claim would be hard to defend, as available figures indicate that national rough sleeper numbers have risen year-on-year since 2010.

Rough sleeper numbers are difficult to calculate accurately given the often episodic, transient and hidden nature of street homelessness. Official rough sleeper statistics published by central government are based on local authority counts and estimates on a single night. They are mere snapshots and significantly underestimate the true numbers of individuals affected. Imperfect as they are, these figures are nevertheless useful for gauging trends over time.

As the graph below shows, the latest official figures indicate that rough sleeper numbers increased very rapidly (rising by 23%) in England between 2010 and 2011. The pace of increase then slowed in 2012 and 2013 (to 6% and 5% respectively).

The number of rough sleepers then rose more quickly once again, increasing by 14% between 2013 and 2014. The overall increase in rough sleeping has been particularly dramatic in London, where numbers have risen by 79% since 2010.

Rough sleeping counts and estimates by London and Rest of England. DCLG, Rough Sleeping Statistics England - Autumn 2014 Official Statistics

This upward trend is also reflected in statistics collected by service providers, most notably in CHAIN data in London which is the most comprehensive and robust information source on rough sleeping in the UK. This records details regarding all verified rough sleepers (that is, those seen “bedded down” by street outreach workers), rather than those just counted (or estimated) on a single night. CHAIN indicates that rough sleeper numbers increased by 64% between 2010-11 and 2013-14.

Levels of rough sleeping fluctuate, so if you look hard enough it is possible to observe short-term deviations from this general trend, especially when examining data for particular subgroups. For example, the most recent CHAIN Quarterly Report covering the period October-December 2014 indicates that the number of “new” rough sleepers in London (defined as those who were seen by outreach teams for the first time) was 13% lower than in the previous (July-September) quarter; also, the overall total of rough sleepers (which includes those “living on the streets” and “intermittent rough sleepers”) reduced by 5%.

A Conservative party spokesperson pointed The Conversation to these particular figures, but did not say this was what Cameron was referring to.

Yet, the same statistical release also reports that the number of new rough sleepers and total rough sleepers recorded in that period (October-December 2014) had increased by 17% and 13% respectively as compared with the same quarter in 2013. Successive CHAIN quarterly reports indicate that rough sleeper numbers are always lower in October-December than in the preceding three months.

To latch onto what are in fact recurrent seasonal variations in one city and imply that they are representative of a general trend during the coalition’s term of office, if this is in fact what Cameron has done, is to misrepresent the bigger picture of a persistent annual increase in the prevalence of rough sleeping at the national level.

The Homelessness Monitor, an independent report published in February 2015 by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, points out that the increase in rough sleeper numbers pre-dates the election of the coalition government and that the pace of increase is likely to have been moderated by government initiatives such as No Second Night Out, launched in 2011.

The monitor also documents that the increase in figures results in part from growing representation of non-UK (especially Central and Eastern European) nationals within the street homeless population. However, it suggests that funding cuts to preventative services and the impacts of welfare reform (increased benefit sanctions, housing benefit caps and the bedroom tax) are also implicated.

There are no signs of this upward trend reversing any time soon. As the Monitor reports, many key players in the homelessness sector fear that levels of rough sleeping will continue to rise given the ongoing impact of austerity measures and welfare reform. They are united in calling for improvements in the support available to homeless people so that they need not resort to sleeping rough.

Verdict

David Cameron’s claim that rough sleeper numbers “are down” under the coalition government is indefensible. Existing evidence indicates consistently that rough sleeper numbers in England have risen significantly since the coalition government came into power.

Review

This fact check is very good, and I endorse its verdict. Problems of homelessness have received very little attention in the election campaign thus far so it is important to examine this claim in detail. Homelessness figures are often disputed, in part because homelessness takes different forms (and so figures can refer to different things) and in part because certain forms of homelessness, especially rough sleeping, are notoriously difficult to count.

But even with these provisos in place, it is remarkably difficult to understand how David Cameron could make such a claim. By the government’s own figures, levels of homelessness (however defined) have risen dramatically over the past five years, and continue to do so; with the most recent rises confirmed by the Department for Communities and Local Government as recently as March this year.

In the period between October 1 and December 31 2014, 13,650 households were accepted as homeless by local authorities in England, a 6% rise on the same period in 2013. Of these, 8,660 (63% of those accepted) were placed in temporary accommodation, with a total of 61,970 households in temporary accommodation awaiting re-housing on 31st December 2014; 9% more households than on the same date in 2013.

The Department for Communities and Local Government also estimate numbers sleeping rough. They report that on a single night in the autumn of 2014, 2,744 people were sleeping rough in England, an increase of 330 people (14%) from autumn 2013. As with levels of statutory homelessness, the number of people sleeping rough have also increased in England as a whole year on year over the past five years: from 1,768 in 2010 to 2,744 in 2014. The only exception to this general rise was in London in 2013, when numbers dropped by 3%; though over the longer term levels of rough sleeping in London have also risen – from 415 people on a single night in London in 2010, to 742 people in 2014.

With so many figures flying around, it might be that Cameron was referring to Department for Communities and Local Government figures estimates of the number of people sleeping rough in London on a single night in 2013. If so, and it would show a remarkable grip of his material to have done so, it was misleading to make this argument based on a single outlier. According to all other data, levels of both statutory homelessness and rough sleeping continue to rise both in London and across England as a whole.

A more plausible explanation for his statement is perhaps simply that he thought he could get away with it, precisely because problems of homelessness have received so little attention recently. Perhaps it is time they received more. – Jon May

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