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Saturday, April 20, 2019

Can rough sleeping figures be trusted?

There was an interesting article in Thursday's Guardian, which highlighted an assertion by the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, that claims rough sleeping is falling in England should not be trusted until the government has explained how an emergency funding scheme for the worst-affected areas might have skewed the latest figures.

The paper says Sir David Norgrove’s comments are the latest development in a row over the apparent 2% fall in rough sleeping in England in 2018, which ministers said was a sign the government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI) was tackling the homelessness crisis:

In a significant intervention, Norgrove said the official figures for 2018 should not be used to make claims about rough sleeping in England until the government addresses concerns that some councils that received RSI funding had deliberately underreported the scale of the crisis in their area.

The official rough sleeping statistics for England, based on estimates and spot counts from all local authorities on a single night in autumn, are intended to include everyone about to bed down or already bedded down on the street, in doorways, parks, tents and sheds, but not hostels or shelters.

Estimates, akin to a local census, are typically agreed by agencies who work closely with rough sleepers in the area all year, whereas street counts are one-night snapshots.

After the official figures for 2018 were published at the start of the year, the prime minister, Theresa May, hailed an apparent 85% fall in rough sleeping in Southend from 2017 to 2018.

Southend was among several local authorities that changed its methodology after it received short-term RSI funding, along with Brighton, Southend, Redbridge, Eastbourne, Medway, Worthing, Thanet, Exeter, Basildon, Ipswich and Warwick.

All councils recorded significant falls in rough sleeping from 2017 to 2018 after switching from an estimate to a count, which critics said occurred because of the methodology change and did not reflect the reality on the streets.

For the second time since the 2018 figures were published, Norgrove said they “should not be used to draw firm conclusions about recent trends in rough sleeping and cannot yet support public claims about the success of the Rough Sleeping Initiative” until the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) provided clarity.

The idea that there is a fall in rough sleeping anywhere in the UK is counter-intuitive. Anecdotally, in any city or town, there appears to be an increase in the numbers of people sleeping out and/or begging. It is also notoriously difficult to get an accurate count of rough sleepers, and that applies in whatever part of the UK one is surveying.

Looking at the measures being promoted in the Rough Sleeping Initiative, it appears the UK Government is on the right track. Where it seems to go awry is in its targeting - my view is that the initiative needs more money so that it can be rolled out across the country - and that the Housing First approach is still in pilot stage.

Why the UK Government (and the Welsh Government for that matter) are still only piloting Housing First is a puzzle. The approach has already proven its worth in Scotland, we don't need more pilots to tell us what we already know. Let's roll Housing First out across the whole country now, without delay, so that we can put in place sustainable solutions to homelessness sooner rather than later.
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