Rough sleeping has been a distressing feature of London life for a very long time, and has become more pronounced in recent years. But the nature of the issue as it has lately evolved is often seen less clearly. There is debate and confusion about how best to address it: debate about why rough sleeping has increased; confusion among ordinary Londoners who wish to do something to help. What is the true picture and how is it best addressed?
There is at least agreement that the numbers of rough sleepers in the capital have increased. The most reliable statistics for Greater London are compiled by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), a database funded by the Greater London Authority which records sightings of rough sleepers [and “the wider street population”] reported by the outreach teams of an array of organisations across capital. It is managed by St Mungo’s, one of the city’s largest homelessness charities, based in Tower Hill.
The CHAIN figures tell a stark story. In financial year 2009/10, the first of its existence, CHAIN recorded 3,673 people seen rough sleeping in London on one or more occasion. That total has risen every year since, with the exception of 2017/18. The most recent is for 2018/19 – a highest ever 8,855.
Consensus about exactly why the numbers have grown is, however, harder to find. Much of the argument has had a political character, centring on public policy and immigration. As housing charity Shelter documents, London’s rough sleeping population has long included refugees from other countries, and from 2004 it has also included significant numbers of people from east European “accession” nations admitted to the European Union.
Public spending cuts over the past ten years are also often blamed, as the supply of new social housing has fallen short of demand and growing pressures on local authority budgets have eroded some homelessness services (homelessness as a whole, not only street homelessness, has been rising in London).
However, there can also be other reasons why the figures rise. A big jump in the rough sleeper total in 2011/12 is, according to CHAIN, “likely to have been at least in part accounted for by the expanded outreach presence associated with the introduction of [a national government policy initiative called] No Second Night Out”. This is a rapid response programme designed to immediately help those seen sleeping rough for the first time to avoid doing so again. It was introduced in London under the mayoralty of Boris Johnson and continues under Sadiq Khan (who published a full rough sleeping commissioning framework, complete with its objectives and details of GLA-support services, in 2018).
Further new funding during 2018/19, which, in CHAIN’s words, “saw a large increase in the number of outreach services in staff in London” might also have inflated the numbers found in that year, simply because there have been more people out on the streets looking for them. To note this, though, is not to talk down the size of the problem. Those 8,855 people were still seen and it’s unlikely that every single rough sleeper was spotted. Happier news is that, as the Peckham-based homelessness charity Thames Reach records, funding from central government for outreach services helped 1,655 rough sleepers into some form of accommodation between October and December 2019.
What do we know about those that were? CHAIN reports that 84 per cent of them were men and eight percent were under 25 years of age. Sixty per cent of the 8,855 were spotted only once. The same percentage had not been seen rough sleeping before, of whom three-quarters were spotted only once. Of the overall total, 607 were seen rough sleeping on between six and 10 occasions, 323 between eleven and 20, and 93 more than 20 times. Around one seventh of the overall total had not been seen during the previous year but were “returners” from years before that.
Where had the rough sleepers come from? Just under half of the 8,855 were from the United Kingdom, and the rest were from overseas. A majority of the latter were from central and eastern European nations, accounting for nearly one third of the overall total. Many were Romanians (1,279 of them) and Poles (665). There were also Indians (144), Italians (130), Irish (120), Portuguese (98) and 459 people from various African countries. The nationality of 701 rough sleepers was not identified.
What help did they need? The CHAIN figures tell us that 42 per cent of the 2018/19 total had “support needs around alcohol” and 41 per cent around drugs. Exactly half had needs related to their mental health. Only 20 per cent had no alcohol, drug or mental health-related needs. CHAIN’s reporting also showed that the percentage of rough sleepers needing help with drug problems had risen from just over 30 per cent in 2014/15.
Over 5,000 of those seen rough sleepers disclosed histories of being in prison, in care or the armed forces. More than a third had spent time in prison. Eleven per cent had been through the care system. Six per cent had served in the armed forces.
And where in Greater London were the rough sleepers found? Categorised by borough, by far the largest number, 2,512, were in Westminster. Concentrations of rough sleepers in the Victoria area, near Parliament and elsewhere have attracted a lot of publicity. A further 815 rough sleepers were seen in Camden, part of which, it is worth noting, also falls into the West End. Yet the third highest borough number of 612 were seen well away from Central London, in Newham (there has been a particular issue in the Stratford shopping centre recently).
City of London was next on the list with 414, followed by Southwark with 435. In all these cases, the figures were higher than those of the previous year. Another rough sleeping hotspot was a space much smaller than a borough – Heathrow airport, where 283 rough sleepers were seen. The smallest number, 30, were seen in Harrow.
Rough sleepers inspire much public sympathy, but not all expressions of it are welcomed by charities and others dedicated to helping them. For example, workers with the street homeless sometimes vent frustration with individuals who take it open themselves, albeit with the best of intentions, to turn up in areas where rough sleepers congregate with tents and bedding. The objection to such interventions is that they contribute to institutionalising rough sleeper concentrations rather than helping people to get off the streets and into safer, better circumstances. When rough sleeper gatherings become settled they can also consolidate markets for drugs dealers and sexual exploitation.
What are the best things the public can do? The Streetlink service enables rough sleepers to be connected with local services that can support them. There are varying views, even among charities, about whether the public should give money to people who beg on the street (or, increasingly it seems) on Underground and Overground trains.
Some strongly advise against it, pointing out that not everyone who begs is actually without a home and may well want your money for spending on drugs. Sometimes, those begging will say they need it to pay for a stay in a shelter or hostel, but in truth these are free. Far better, in this view, to donate directly to a charity or by way of the London Homeless Collective of charities, supported by the Mayor.
Photograph by Omar Jan. On London will be providing further coverage of rough sleeping in the capital and the efforts of those working to reduce it in the coming weeks and months.