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Making homelessness statistics count

3 min read

If the government can’t count how many people are on the streets with any degree of confidence, how can ministers be sure of meeting the target of ending rough sleeping in England by the end of the parliament? Analysis by Harry Banton of Dods Political Intelligence

According to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC)’s latest rough sleeping snapshot released last month, there were nine per cent fewer people sleeping rough in England on a single night in Autumn 2021 compared with the same period the previous year, the fourth consecutive annual decline. While that suggests progress, experts warn that these official figures may not, however, give an accurate picture.

“The government’s target to end rough sleeping by 2024 is ambitious – and almost impossible to judge without an accurate method of counting how many people are sleeping rough,” Lord John Bird, Crossbench peer and founder of The Big Issue, told The House. 

The erratic and hidden nature of homelessness means measuring how many rough sleepers there are has always been challenging. Local authorities and charities have traditionally relied on physically counting people on the streets. 

In 2008, the Labour government estimated there were 500 rough sleepers in England, compared with an estimated 2,440 in the 2021 snapshot. But only 70 councils – out of a total of more than 300 – conducted street counts that year, with some large cities including Manchester declining to do so. Data collection was also varied and often rudimentary. A London councillor told The House that councillors would simply drive around and count homeless people from a car. 

Guidance introduced in 2010 has helped improve the accuracy and standardisation of rough sleeper counts, experts say. Last year 207 local authorities performed a count, relying mainly on intelligence and manpower from charities. 

But the data remains patchy, raising questions about the effectiveness of the government’s plan to spend almost £2bn a year on tackling rough sleeping by 2025. Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote in 2019 that the government’s commitment to improving statistics collection in the 2018 Rough Sleeping Strategy over nine years was “so lengthy a period that it could be taken as not really being a commitment”. 

Evolving counting methods have sometimes made annual comparisons difficult. The UK Statistics Authority said significant differences between the figures for 2017 and 2018 were partly due to local authorities changing their counting methods.

Despite DLUHC acknowledging the limitations of its rough sleeping snapshot, the government has used the figures to show the apparent success of measures such as the “Everyone In” initiative, which it said helped drive a 37 per cent drop in rough sleepers in 2020. 

DLUHC did not respond to requests for further comment. 

Homeless Link, which verifies the snapshot, has said the data is not intended to capture every person sleeping rough but in a statement added: “The value that it offers is a reliable, cumulative year-on-year picture of the numbers of people estimated to be sleeping rough.” 

Experts say London’s Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), a database which pulls together information on rough sleeping from charities and councils, managed by the St Mungo’s charity, shows how information can be more comprehensive, allowing for data-driven service-design at a granular level. 

“Data on this doesn’t have to be unreliable and there are many ways that we can improve,” Francesca Albanese, head of research and evaluation at homeless charity Crisis, told The House.
But some experts say the government will only ever be able to make a best guess at the scale of homelessness. 

Harrison Wilde, a data scientist with experience working with homeless charities told The House: “The methods are the best they have ever been and certainly improved, but there are still so many gaps, inefficiencies, and inconsistencies amongst different areas… there is no process currently in place that could possibly capture the dynamicism of the situation.”

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