Thousands of people were still sleeping rough across England last autumn despite a government scheme meant to protect the homeless during the pandemic.
There were 2,688 people estimated to be sleeping rough on any single night in England during October and November, according to new data from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
While the number is the third consecutive annual fall, and a drop of 37% compared with 2019, it is 52% higher than the number estimated in 2010, the first year of the Conservative government and when the “snapshot” approach was first introduced.
The annual count covers only those who are sleeping or bedding down for the night. It does not include people on the streets who have no bedding near them, or anyone in shelters or hostels.
Local authorities said the fall was due to the government’s Everyone In scheme, where councils were instructed to rapidly rehouse thousands of rough sleepers at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Rough Sleeping Initiative which launched in 2018.
But Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said that while the latest figures demonstrate the “life changing impact” of the scheme, they don’t give the full picture of the reality on the UK’s streets.
He said: “For many, it put them on a path out of homelessness for good. But we must be clear – while positive, these statistics do not represent the full picture. Throughout the pandemic we have seen new people forced onto our streets and every person sleeping rough is one too many.
“The last 12 months have shown that when the political will is there, and homelessness is given the priority it deserves, we can bring people off the streets.”
Back in March when the outbreak plunged the country into its first lockdown, communities secretary Robert Jenrick announced £3.2 million in emergency funding to help rough sleepers to self-isolate and prevent the spread of coronavirus amongst homeless communities.
In a matter of days, the government’s Everyone In scheme enabled local authorities to place 90% of rough sleepers in emergency accommodation such as hotels and empty apartment blocks.
A study by the University College London found Everyone In prevented as many as 266 deaths and saved tens of thousands of some of the most vulnerable people across England from catching coronavirus.
But Labour and housing charities have said the latest figures show the scheme’s success was short-lived and a return to pre-pandemic levels was likely.
Shadow housing secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, said: “It is extremely concerning they have not repeated the emergency support for rough sleeping that was in place during the first lockdown.”
The shortcomings of the Everyone In scheme were laid bare in a report earlier this week which said 1,000 homeless deaths occurred last year across the UK.
The Museum of Homelessness (MoH) said the figure rose by more than a third on the previous year, and called for more to be done to stop such “terrible loss of life”.
The museum’s Dying Homeless Project recorded 976 deaths across the four nations in 2020.
The MoH said its findings showed that less than 3% of recorded causes of death were directly attributed to coronavirus, which it described as a “significant achievement” of the scheme.
But it added that the efforts could not make up for pre-pandemic cuts to services, coupled with the disruption caused by the outbreak.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: ”The huge effort made to help people off the streets shows what can be done. But the war is not won. No one should be sleeping rough during the pandemic, and we’re still a long way from zero.
“Emergency accommodation needs to be there for everyone at risk of the street, yet we know it’s not.
“The pandemic isn’t over, and we must continue to keep people safe.”
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said he was “heartened” by the fall and said the priority is to “maintain this momentum”, promising a “marriage of health and housing”.
He said more recent data, while not official, shows the total number of people estimated as sleeping rough fell further to 1,461 at the end of January.
The government aims to eliminate rough sleeping by the end of this parliament, with £750m being spent over the next year.
Of this, £6.4m will help voluntary organisations provide accommodation and referral services.
Mr Jenrick told MPs: “We will never live in a country, sadly, where there is not a single person sleeping rough on the streets.
“But the litmus test for a civilised society must be that nobody has the need to, and that everybody is offered support swiftly – not so much no second night out, but no first night out.”