Government figures released on Thursday appear to paint an optimistic picture for homelessness rates in England, showing a drop of 2% across the country.
On the face of it, local authorities like Maidstone and Southend-on-Sea have had great success in reducing the number of rough sleepers, recording reductions of 85 and 78% respectively.
According to the “snapshot” government stats, the number of rough sleepers nationally fell from 4,751 in 2017 to 4,677 in 2018. But the figures, and the way they are collected, have been widely criticised as being misleading, and failing to capture the real scale fo the problem.
While the latest numbers do indicate a drop since last year, the number of rough sleepers in England is actually up by a staggering 165% since comparable records began in 2010.
In addition, the number of rough sleepers is counted on one night of the year, when local authorities are required to conduct a “snapshot” count that contributes to the nationwide figures.
A closer examination of the figures betray the shortcomings of the method. While many areas showed double figure decreases, others were up double or even triple figures.
Enfield recorded a change of 767%, from nine to 78. Corby’s rough sleeper numbers were recorded as a 600% increase, from four to 24.
And despite the fall across England, London saw a 13% increase with 1,283 people recorded sleeping on the streets.
An investigation by HuffPost UK in November showed 33 of 326 local authorities in England recorded zero rough sleepers for 2017 – including boroughs where street sleepers are usually visible throughout the year.
A town hall chief at West Devon Borough Council, which returned a figure of zero, said he supported a change in method.
“I personally feel that a yearly count would be a more realistic way to obtain accurate numbers of rough sleepers across the country,” Tony Leech, lead member for health and wellbeing at West Devon, told HuffPost UK.
Explaining his council’s zero figure, he said: “On the night that the count estimate was conducted, evidence suggested there were no rough sleepers out on that particular night.
“That is not to say that instances of rough sleeping don’t occur in West Devon - during the year we were made aware of rough sleepers and worked closely to resolve their homelessness and provide housing options.”
Figures from other sources also suggest the government figures are not accurate. A study by the housing charity Crisis said 24,000 people in Britain spent Christmas last year sleeping rough, on public transport, or in tents.
Local authorities warned that preventing rough sleeping is “becoming increasingly difficult”, citing a homelessness services funding gap of more than £100 million in 2019/20.
“Proper resourcing of local government funding is essential if we are going to end homelessness,” the Local Government Association’s housing spokesman Martin Tett said.
Communities Secretary James Brokenshire, said in a statement: “The number of vulnerable people sleeping on our streets has now fallen for the first time in eight years. I am pleased to see our strategy to end rough sleeping, backed by a record investment of £100m, is starting to have an effect and there are particularly encouraging results in those areas funded by our Rough Sleeping Initiative where numbers have fallen by almost a quarter.
“But while these figures are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, I do not underestimate the task ahead in achieving our ambition of eliminating rough sleeping altogether by 2027. Councils have used the new funding to create an additional 1,750 beds and 500 rough sleeping support staff, who are working tirelessly to support people off the streets and into recovery.
“I am clear we need to go further than ever before to build upon today’s results and sustain momentum as we move towards ending rough sleeping.”
The data came as the capital experienced temperatures as low as minus 6.4C (20.5F) overnight, and the Met Office warned that temperatures could remain below freezing across the country during the small hours into next week.
Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Shelter, said in a statement: “The combination of spiralling rents, a faulty benefits system and lack of social housing means the number of people forced to sleep rough has risen dramatically since 2010.
“Anyone who is forced to sleep in shop doorways or on the night bus is the end result of a broken housing system. And this figure is just the tip of the iceberg: there are many more people living precariously in emergency and temporary accommodation with their families.”