As last week’s Westminster Housing Commission report highlights, the central London authority has a very high caseload of homelessness applications and a high population of people housed in temporary accommodation.
Indeed, quarterly homelessness statistics last week from the Department for Communities and Local Government showed that the capital as a whole must cope with greater numbers of homeless people than other parts of England.
In the second quarter of 2006, London accepted the greatest number of homelessness applications of any region.
It also had by far the largest number of households accommodated in temporary accommodation – 62,000, or two-thirds, of England’s 93,900.
Although Westminster’s homelessness problem is acute – it has more than 3,000 households in temporary accommodation and accepted 174 priority need cases in the second quarter – other London boroughs have severe problems too.
Haringey has almost 5,800 households in temporary accommodation, while there are almost 5,600 in Newham.
However, rough-sleeper statistics published last week show that Westminster still has the highest total, with 173 of England’s total of 502, which was up 10 per cent on last year.
The City of London has the next highest total, 25, but many of England’s largest urban authorities can count the number of rough sleepers on their patch on the fingers of one hand.
This causes Jeremy Swain, chief executive of homelessness charity Thames Reach Bondway, to doubt the veracity of some figures.
He cites Tower Hamlets as an example. Thames Reach is based in the east London borough and Swain says it is “implausible” that it only has the three rough sleepers counted in the government’s figures.
“I would like a little more rigour in street counts,” says Swain. “I’m not saying they are being wilfully manipulated but I think some of the discipline around street counts has been removed.”
He believes that in some circumstances councils will “celebrate” if they know their street counts have missed rough sleepers as it keeps their figures down.
Tower Hamlets Council says its last street count found three rough sleepers, but a spokesperson admits the figure might not tell the whole story because the count might not have come across people sleeping rough in locations such as stairwells.
Swain does not think, though, that there are “thousands of people on the streets”, and praises the government for hitting its target to reduce the number of rough sleepers by two-thirds from 1998’s 1,850, even if there has been a rise this year.
Adam Rees, area manager for community services at homelessness charity St Mungo’s, says that while it is “in no one’s interests if the counts are not done consistently and rigorously”, they do provide just a “snapshot figure”.
He also says St Mungo’s would be willing to work with the Department for Communities and Local Government, which has responsibility for homelessness, in any boroughs “where there are concerns that people are falling through the cracks in provision”.
The government denies there has been any reduction in the rigour of street counts.
A DCLG spokesperson says there have been no changes to guidelines on street counts and that many homeless people seen on the streets will not necessarily be sleeping rough.
She also points out that people have to be “bedded down and sleeping” to be counted as a rough sleeper.
Swain warns, though, that a surprise could be around the corner if the government and councils “slip back” in their efforts.
He uses the example of New York city, where there was a gradual reduction in the number of rough sleepers until one count showed a big increase. “One day the headline in the paper was ‘They’re Back’,” he says.
Local authorities in England with highest number of rough sleepers
City of London 25
Brighton and Hove 12
Kensington and Chelsea 10
Figures from June 2006