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The number of rough sleepers in England has increased significantly in recent years. According to Government statistics, the total number of rough sleepers in England in autumn 2018 was 4,677, an increase of 165% compared with 2010 and fractionally lower than the 2017 estimate of 4,751. Many rough sleepers have high levels of complex needs; mental health problems, drug and alcohol dependencies, and institutional experiences are common factors. The longer someone sleeps rough the greater the risk that physical and mental health problems will worsen. Rough sleeping is costly to society as a whole; rough sleepers are likely to have more frequent and sustained contact with public services compared to other citizens.

The current Government was elected with a manifesto commitment to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it entirely by 2027. It established a Rough Sleeping and Homelessness Reduction Taskforce, supported by a Rough Sleeping Advisory Panel, to design and implement a cross-government strategy to achieve this.

The Government published its Rough Sleeping Strategy in August 2018, based on a range of ‘prevention’, ‘intervention’ and ‘recovery’ measures and backed by £100 million in funding. It intends to report regularly on progress with implementing the strategy.

Access to accommodation

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which came into force on 3 April 2018, placed new duties on local authorities to intervene at earlier stages to prevent homelessness, irrespective of whether or not an applicant has ‘priority need’ or may be ‘intentionally homeless’. The new duties include providing free information and advice on preventing and relieving homelessness to all residents. The Government launched a call for evidence into the impact of the Act in July 2019 – a final report is expected in March 2020.

A number of initiatives to support rough sleepers to move off the streets and into accommodation have been rolled out nationally, including: No Second Night Out (NSNO), Streetlink and Reconnection. The Government has targeted additional funding at local authorities with high levels of rough sleeping, through its Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI), and constituted a Rough Sleeping Team of experts to work with these areas. It has also provided £28 million to pilot the Housing First approach for long-term rough sleepers in three areas.

The Rough Sleeping Strategy commits further funding to tackle rough sleeping, including: up to £45 million additional funding for the RSI, up to £17 million to fund ‘Somewhere Safe to Stay ‘pilots, and a £50 million Move On Fund to increase the availability of affordable move-on accommodation.

The voluntary sector and the Church play a key role in providing emergency and temporary accommodation for rough sleepers, although there is significant local variation in provision and access criteria. In 2017 there were around 1,123 accommodation projects in England for single homeless people. Temporary accommodation providers report that the lack of affordable accommodation is a key barrier for clients moving on.

Rough sleeping is at its most severe in London. The Greater London Authority has strategic responsibility for the pan-London commissioning and coordination of homelessness services. In June 2018, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, published London’s first Rough Sleeping Action Plan.

Access to health services

Rough sleepers face particular health issues associated with homelessness and challenges in accessing health and dental services. It has been estimated that homeless people consume around four times more acute hospital services than the general population.

Health services and local authorities have a number of tailored services that are intended to meet the specific needs of rough sleepers, although provision varies across England. As part of its Rough Sleeping Strategy, the Government is carrying out a rapid audit of health services in the 83 Rough Sleeping Initiative areas to understand levels of health provision for rough sleepers.

Concerns have been raised about the lack of suitable, specialist mental health support for rough sleepers. The NHS Long Term Plan (January 2019) set out that the NHS will invest up to £30 million extra over the next 5 years on meeting the needs of rough sleepers, to ensure better access to specialist homelessness NHS mental health support.

Access to welfare benefits

Rough sleepers may, depending on their circumstances, be able to claim mainstream social security benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). More rough sleepers will come under the Universal Credit (UC) system as roll-out continues.

There are “easements” that acknowledge that homeless claimants may face difficulties meeting the usual conditionality requirements for benefits – such as jobseeking. Nevertheless, concerns have been raised about the high rate of benefit sanctions amongst homeless service users, and the impact of sanctions. There are also concerns that rough sleepers may face particular challenges navigating the UC system. Claimants are normally expected to claim UC, and manage their ongoing claim, online; and receive a single, monthly payment in arrears, paid into a bank account.

Local welfare assistance schemes may also provide assistance to rough sleepers, although schemes vary considerably in their scope and eligibility criteria. A National Audit Office report in January 2016 highlighted uncertainties over the future of local welfare provision due to funding pressures. A 2016 report by the Work and Pensions Committee concluded that central and local government should co-ordinate better to fill gaps in the welfare safety net.

Food assistance

A wide range of Church and other voluntary organisations provide food assistance to those in need. Assistance may range from a hot meal provided by a ‘soup kitchen’ to a food package provided following referral to a ‘food bank’. There are currently estimated to be over 2000 foodbanks in the UK.

Training and employment

Rough sleepers, particularly those with high support needs, face huge challenges in gaining employment. Nevertheless, St Mungo’s homeless charity has reported that 80% of their clients said that work was one of their goals.

The Government’s Rough Sleeping Strategy outlines the employment support currently available for homeless people and commits to provide additional support. By August 2019, all Jobcentre Customer Services Managers should have undergone new training on homelessness.  

Claimants sleeping rough may be able to get help to address specific barriers to moving closer to or into work through the Jobcentre Plus Flexible Support Fund (FSF). Many homelessness organisations, day centres, and hostels also provide employment advice, training and opportunities for homeless people.

Registering to vote

A rough sleeper with no fixed address who is eligible to vote can register to vote through a declaration of local connection. The Labour Party has urged the Government to do more to enable and encourage homeless people to vote.

The Government has commissioned research to better understand the barriers to registration and intends to create and test targeted solutions with electoral administrators to improve registration processes.

The House of Commons Library briefing paper Rough sleeping (England) (02007) provides background information on the problem of rough sleeping and examines Government policy on this issue. A separate briefing paper covers Statutory homelessness in England (01164). For local-level statistics on rough sleeping, see Local Authority Homelessness Statistics (England). There are now significant variations in approaches to homelessness across the UK – these variations are outlined in Comparison of homelessness duties in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (07201).

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