Rough figures

Controversy surrounds
the government’s claim that rough sleeping has fallen sharply but, more
importantly, what is the government planning to do about the thousands of
hidden homeless people in the UK? Ruth Winchester reports.

In 1998, Tony Blair
wrote in the foreword to a social exclusion unit report on rough sleeping: “The
sight of a rough sleeper bedding down for the night in a shop doorway or on a
park bench is one of the most potent symbols of social exclusion in Britain
today. It is a source of shame for all of us that there are still about 2,000
people out on the streets around England every night, and 10,000 sleep rough
over the course of a year.”1

According to the
latest figures from the rough sleepers unit, set up by Blair in response to the
SEU report, the number of people sleeping rough in England has fallen by 71 per
cent over the past three years, down from 1,850 in 1998 to 532 this November.
But the announcement that the unit had met its target three months early was
greeted with derision by some homelessness charities, who claimed that rough
sleepers had been lured, persuaded or forcibly removed from the streets during
the count.

Critics suggested
that vigorous police and outreach activity for days before the count had ensured
most rough sleepers had a bed for the night, whether they wanted it or not.
Others said parties had been thrown for rough sleepers who would normally have
been on the streets, and that those conducting the count had been pressured by
RSU staff into not counting people who were sitting up in their sleeping bags
rather than lying down.

Even those workers
who are staunch in their support for the unit and its work over the past two
years seem uncomfortable about the methods used to come up with the figures.
One outreach worker admitted there had been some extra activity in the days
running up to the count, but insisted that it was “more like swotting up for an
exam” than a real attempt to fix the results.

But at a meeting
organised by the Transport and General Workers Union,  the union that represents staff who carried out the RSU census,
more than 30 outreach workers reported that rough sleepers had been placed in
bed and breakfast accommodation for short periods during the count. And,
according to a statement from the union, RSU employees who took part in the
street count “pressured skilled workers in the outreach teams not to count
people who were sat up”. Shelter, Crisis and the Simon Community have all
called for an independent investigation into the count.

But Louise Casey,
head of the RSU and a former deputy director of Shelter, has denied any
wrongdoing. She told Radio Four’s Today programme: “There is absolutely no
evidence that this has taken place. The allegations are based on myth and
misinformation… no special measures were taken on the night of the count.”

Whatever the reality,
the dispute should not detract from the unit’s achievements. It has brought an
extra £200m and a change of approach to the long-running battle against
homelessness. While its predecessor, the London Rough Sleepers Initiative, ran
for eight years from 1990 and spent £250m without much visible evidence of
success, in its two-and-a-half year lifespan the RSU does appear to have made
significant inroads into some of the problems.

It can certainly
claim to have had an impact on the number of people sleeping on the streets.
The most recent figures may be contested, but there is little doubt that
overall the number of people sleeping rough has declined sharply. But more
significantly, the RSU has also started to look at some of the more intractable
problems entwined with homelessness. Rather than simply creaming off the most
accessible and amenable rough sleepers in a bid to meet “bums-on-beds” quotas,
the unit has directed efforts at the “hard core” of people whose mental illness
or substance abuse make them a tricky proposition.

The creation of
scores of contact and assessment teams across the country was a recognition
that ongoing, targeted outreach work with individuals was the best way of
improving outcomes for them. Tenancy support teams were set up to help former
rough sleepers maintain their tenancies while they developed sustainable ways
of living. And a lot of money has been ploughed into drug and alcohol work to
ensure that people’s addictions did not automatically put an end to their
housing prospects. More recently, the RSU has injected £250,000 into the
creation of 10 “learning zones” in homeless hostels and day centres around the
country to help former rough sleepers gain access to training, education and

The unit’s initial
two-year remit comes to an end in April next year. What is going to happen then
is either a closely guarded secret, or still undecided. Minister for housing,
planning and regeneration Lord Falconer has announced the creation of a new
Homelessness Directorate which will “bring together and invigorate existing
work to help homeless people, as well as develop new work to help prevent
homelessness and investigate its underlying causes”. The newly launched bed and
breakfast unit will fall under the directorate, and it is expected that the RSU
will also fall within its boundaries.

The creation of a
specific unit with a brief to address the wider problem of homelessness, rather
than simply rough sleeping, is welcome. But given the current financial climate
there has been no mention of dedicated funding for this new directorate. Also
there is evidence that while rough sleeping continues to fall, homelessness as
a whole is increasing sharply. According to figures released last month by the
Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, 12,290 households
were in bed and breakfast accommodation at the end of September. This
represents an increase of 8 per cent since June this year, and of 24 per cent
since September 2000.2

Similarly, the number
of households accepted as homeless by local authorities has increased. In the
quarter ending in September 2001, nearly 31,000 households were accepted as
being eligible for assistance, unintentionally homeless, and in priority need.
While some areas reported very small increases, there were increases of 12 per
cent in London, the East Midlands, and Yorkshire and Humberside.

It is important to
note that these figures represent only vulnerable people and families with
children who qualify as “priority need”. Local authorities are under no duty to
house most single people and childless couples, and many more homeless people
never seek help from the authorities and so are not included in the statistics.
These include people who stay with friends, “absconded” asylum seekers, people
living in hostels or squats and those living in overcrowded or unfit
accommodation. Recent figures from homelessness charity Crisis suggest there
are about 400,000 people who fall into this category – so for every single
rough sleeper there are 500 “hidden homeless” people.

Unfortunately, the
Homelessness Directorate is going to face a more complex and far-reaching range
of challenges than the tightly focused RSU ever had to. The reasons people end
up homeless are well documented. Leaving care, leaving home, leaving the armed
forces and leaving prison can all be the cue for homelessness. Mental illness,
relationship breakdown and problematic drug or alcohol use are also contributory
factors. And badly thought out policy is often partly to blame. For example,
homelessness charity St Mungo’s estimates that every year approximately 5,000
prisoners are released to no fixed abode in London with less than £100 in their
pocket. This can hardly be described as an anti-homelessness, or
anti-reoffending, strategy.

The Homelessness Bill
promises to extend the number of “priority need” categories to include children
leaving care, people leaving the armed forces, and inmates leaving prison,
which will mean local authorities are under a duty to house them. Local
authorities will also be required to draw up plans to tackle homelessness
locally. But simply extending councils’ housing responsibilities is pointless
unless they are given the means to meet them. In many areas councils are losing
their own accommodation through the Right to Buy, are prohibited from building
more, and are finding it increasingly difficult and expensive to purchase
accommodation from other suppliers.

This is likely to be
one of the main challenges for the Homelessness Directorate. Demand for
affordable accommodation in many towns and cities already far outstrips supply,
but the problem is particularly acute for temporary supported accommodation.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what rough sleepers and other vulnerable people
often need.

This problem is
unlikely to be as quickly or easily solved as rough sleeping. At a recent
conference hosted by the bed and breakfast unit the antagonism between local
authorities and housing associations was clear. Councils’ own housing supply is
outdated and dwindling, but their housing responsibilities are expanding and
demand for affordable accommodation has never been higher.

Housing associations
are social landlords, largely funded with public money, and their primary role
should be to provide affordable accommodation for people in most need. But
local authorities accuse them of shying away from housing rough sleepers,
homeless people and those with higher support needs. Housing associations forcefully
deny it.

A particular bone of
contention is temporary housing. The B&B unit has been created to reduce
local authorities’ reliance on bed and breakfast accommodation, particularly
for homeless families with children. Yet the supply of alternative good quality
temporary accommodation is drying up at an alarming rate. This is partly a
result of economic factors – private landlords are finding they can get good
rents for their properties without resorting to housing homeless families. But
it is also a result of housing associations’ increasing wariness of the housing
benefit system.

The London Housing
Federation is the professional body for housing associations in the capital.
Its members provide more than 10,000 units of temporary accommodation across 27
London boroughs. The majority of these units are supplied through an agreement
between the housing associations and private landlords, whereby the association
provides the landlord with a rent guarantee and a variety of incentives, and
allocates the accommodation to people the local authority identifies as being
in priority need.

This seems a very
neat solution to a problem. But housing associations argue that temporary
accommodation is becoming an increasingly risky financial proposition for them.
According to Laura Hare, London policy officer for the London Housing
Federation, housing associations are owed something like £12m in unpaid housing
benefit on those 10,000 units of temporary accommodation – which works out as
nearly £1,200 per unit. As Hare points out, while housing benefit delays are
frustrating and financially damaging for landlords with permanent tenants, the
rent does eventually get paid. By contrast, associations managing temporary
accommodation can be left chasing months of rent arrears through the system for
a tenant who has since moved on, only to be told that the tenant was not
entitled to claim.

The upshot is that
housing associations are starting to pull out of the provision of temporary
accommodation in London. In fact, they are planning to provide less than half
the amount of temporary accommodation in 2001-2 than they did in the previous
year, and are pulling out of some boroughs altogether. And those boroughs with
the worst housing benefit problems are often those with the worst homelessness

According to Hare and
others, the housing benefit system is partly responsible for the crisis facing
homeless families, particularly in the capital. It is undoubtedly in need of a
massive overhaul and such a mammoth undertaking is a frightful prospect for any
government. But most people are clear that the problem in London and other
hotspots is fundamentally one of inadequate supply.

In November, the
government quietly set up an affordable housing unit to look specifically at
this issue. Its remit is to “put measures in place by the end of 2002 which
will significantly increase the supply of affordable housing in London and
other regions in the short to medium term, ie by 2005”. How this will tie in
with the work of the embryonic Homelessness Directorate and the B&B unit is
not yet clear, but it is encouraging that at least the problem is being taken
seriously. Whether it is taken seriously enough to attract the massive
investment required remains to be seen. CC

1 Social
exclusion unit, Rough Sleeping Report, Cabinet Office, July 1998

Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Statutory
Homelessness England: Third Quarter 2001, DTLR 2001 or at

For more information
on government homelessness policy go to  for the rough sleepers unit or  for information about the bed and
breakfast unit. Other voluntary sector sites include that of Shelter at and the London
Housing Federation at

your say

Has the rough sleepers unit achieved the success it is claiming? Or are there
still large numbers of people living on the streets? Is the government doing
enough to ensure there is adequate temporary accommodation where it is needed?
Have your say in our online discussion forum by e-mailing
before January 17.

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