Hundreds of thousands of rough sleepers are not being recorded in official government data, meaning the true scale of the homeless crisis is vastly underreported, HuffPost UK can reveal.
As thousands of people bed down on pavements across the UK this winter, statistical data tracking the scale of the problem has come under fire from council leaders. This data is used to determine resources given to councils to tackle their homelessness problem.
An investigation by HuffPost UK has shown the government’s use of “snapshot” rough sleeper counts on just one night of the year in autumn are being used to provide data on the nationwide levels of homelessness, despite being unreliable.
HuffPost UK’s analysis of last year’s figures shows 33 of 326 local authorities in England recorded zero rough sleepers for 2017 – including the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, where street sleepers are visible throughout the year. This is because council officers recorded no rough sleepers on the one night they collected the data between October 1 and November 30 last year.
Leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, Darren Rodwell, has called for reforms, saying the anomaly showed the inherent inaccuracy in the data.
“Obviously we know as a local authority that our numbers are not at zero,” he told HuffPost UK. “So it shows the flaw in the system because we are aware that we’ve had a number of rough sleepers in the borough.
“This is part of the problem of just doing a one evening count because it’s what you find on that evening. I’m very unequivocal that a one evening walkabout is not the true picture. I don’t think the data is working properly.”
Highlighting the human impact, he added: “This is not just about collecting data because we’re talking about human beings here. What we need is to provide services to people and at the moment we’re restricted from doing that.”
Accuracy of the data is crucial as government uses it to make policy and funding decisions about tackling street homelessness, meaning the figures have a direct impact on the money and support reaching rough sleepers.
The Rough Sleeping Statistics Autumn 2017 report specifically say of the statistics: “They are used by ministers and officials in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in the formulation and monitoring of policy, the allocation of resources, performance monitoring and to support bids for funding from the Treasury.”
The government says the statistics represents the number of people seen or thought to be sleeping rough on a “typical night”.
It argues that asking local authorities to supply annual figures would require a “multi-agency database” or counting the number of people sleeping rough on every night of the year, which is not practical.
But council leaders say that any local authority where an outreach service for rough sleepers is operated, either by the council or a charity, would already hold more robust data about patterns of street sleeping over the year than the official government figures.
A town hall chief at West Devon Borough Council, which also returned a figure of zero rough sleepers in 2017, said he too backed system reform.
“I personally feel that a yearly count would be a more realistic way to obtain accurate numbers of rough sleepers across the country,” Cllr 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.”
Critics say the inherent risk of obtaining data on one single night of the year means the number can vary due to the weather and natural ebbs and flows in street sleeping.
The lack of accurate annual statistics arguably makes it harder for the government to analyse how much money is needed for outreach services.
The weakness in the data is starkly demonstrated by looking at figures for the north London borough of Camden, which is recognised as having among the highest levels of rough sleeping in the country.
Last year, the local authority saw a huge spike in the number of street sleepers reported in the council’s snapshot figures - from 17 in 2016, to 127 in 2017.
Camden Council blamed the hike on the worst housing crisis since the Second World War, saying the situation had been “made worse by the politics of austerity leading to cuts in services across the country”.
But the true scale of rough sleeping in Camden is likely to far exceed the official figure reported to government.
In 2016, an investigation by local newspaper the Ham&High revealed data showing there were 601 rough sleepers in Camden in 2015. The newspaper’s figures were compiled using information from Camden’s Safer Streets team of outreach workers, giving an accurate picture of numbers found on the streets annually. The official figure from the snapshot count that year was 15.
If this scale of difference were replicated across the 326 local authorities in England, the annual figure for rough sleepers would stretch to hundreds of thousands rather than the 4,751 logged in the government’s official 2017 data.
Cllr Rodwell, who is also executive member for housing and planning on London Councils, which represents 32 local authorities in the capital, said the crux of the issue was money. He believes cash-strapped councils would be unable to provide more detailed tables on rough sleeping without an injection of government funding.
“I think the problem that we’ve got is that in times of austerity, despite what government says, local government is in such a place that we are unable to give you confirmed data due to the fact that we do not have the facilities to do more than what’s being asked of us presently,” he said.
“I do believe the government needs to invest in more systems that allow the community and voluntary sector and local government to show what the real situation is.”
HuffPost UK found varying opinions among local authority leaders across the country about the veracity of the rough sleeping data.
The five councils with the highest number of rough sleepers based on the 2017 council-led counts were Westminster (217), Brighton and Hove (178), Camden (127), Manchester (94) and Luton (87).
Cllr Sue Murphy, deputy leader of Manchester City Council, told HuffPost UK the figures only provided a “snapshot on one night of the year” but said the council gathers more detailed information to direct services.
“No-one would suggest that this figure stays static as it can go up or down over time,” she said. “Our rough sleeper outreach team as well as those of our partner agencies are out engaging with people on the streets throughout the year so that we have an up-to date picture of how many people are sleeping rough on any given night so that we can respond to that need.”
Luton Borough Council highlighted the importance of the rough sleeper data in accessing government funding to tackle homelessness.
“Funding decisions are based on the results of the estimates and Luton has benefited from additional funding to reduce the levels of rough sleeping by 50 per cent,” a council spokesman told HuffPost UK. “One of the conditions of receiving the funding is that we carry out bi-monthly counts of rough sleepers in the area. This will provide comparable data throughout the year.”
Among the 33 councils who returned zero counts last year were Sunderland, Barnsley, Braintree, South Staffordshire, West Lancashire, North West Lancashire, North Warwickshire, Richmondshire, Charnwood and Knowsley.
Cllr Paul Mercer, lead member for housing at Charnwood Borough Council in the East Midlands, said he was confident in the data.
“For the last two years we have undertaken a count with volunteers visiting all of the 46 locations in the borough known to have been used by rough sleepers in the past,” he said. “In 2016, only one rough sleeper was identified, and he declined an offer of a bed. None were found in 2017.”
Knowsley Council, in the north west, echoed confidence in the figures.
Cllr Tony Brennan, cabinet member for regeneration and economic development, told HuffPost UK: “Knowsley’s housing options service proactively engages with individuals who are at risk of homelessness and during this particular year, was able to ensure that no-one slept rough in the borough.”
Braintree District Council conceded the picture on the ground was more complex, but defended the current system.
“The very nature of rough-sleeping means that individuals are liable to move around,” cabinet member for planning and housing Cllr Lynette Bowers-Flint said. “The current methodology therefore mitigates the risk of multiple-counting while still providing a national picture of the level of rough sleeping.”
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), which oversees the rough sleeper data, said detailed guidance is provided to local authorities on how to conduct the counts and estimates.
The department says it works with partner agencies and Homeless Link to verify all local counts and is taking “bold action” to tackle rough sleeping.
An MHCLG spokesperson said: “The rough sleeping count uses a well-established method and provides us with a reliable way of comparing change over time.”
Minister for housing and homelessness, Heather Wheeler MP, told HuffPost UK: “It is simply unacceptable that anyone has to sleep on the streets, especially during the winter months, and we are determined to put a stop to it.
“That’s why we’ve set out a wide-ranging plan to end rough sleeping by 2027 – backed by £100million – to help those on the streets get swift, targeted help. This money will be overseen by local experts to make sure funding is spent quickly and the most vulnerable receive immediate support.
“By working together with local government, agencies and charities across the country, we can really make a difference in getting people off the street, address their complex needs and help them find a place to call home.”
The 33 councils with zero rough sleepers in 2017
Sunderland, Barnsley, Barking and Dagenham, Charnwood, Braintree, Knowsley, Redcar and Cleveland, Eastleigh, Gedling, Wyre, Chorley, Hinckley and Bosworth, South Ribble, South Staffordshire, West Lancashire, North West Leicestershire, West Lindsey, Blaby, Hambleton, Pendle, Harborough, Castle Point, Mole Valley, Selby, Brentwood, Barrow-in-Furness, Rossendale, North Warwickshire, Ribble Valley, West Devon, Melton, Richmondshire, Isles of Scilly
Have you regularly seen rough sleepers on the streets in one of these areas - or are you an outreach worker supporting the homeless in these towns and cities?
HuffPost UK would like to hear from you. Contact special correspondent Emma Youle on firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @emmayoule