This page contains background information on rough sleeping, as well as some suggested further reading materials which Members may find useful in preparation for this debate.

Rough sleepers are one of the most vulnerable groups in society; studies have found strong correlations between homelessness and a multiplicity, and increased severity, of both physical and mental health conditions. Rough sleepers are over 9 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population; on average rough sleepers die at age 47 (age 43 for women). 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 number of rough sleepers

The most recent statistics published on 25 January 2018 recorded a 169% increase in the number of people sleeping rough in England since 2010.

Rough sleeping is at its most severe in London. The latest financial year report from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) database, CHAIN Street to Home Annual Report 2016-17, shows that a total of 8,108 rough sleepers were contacted by outreach workers or building-based teams in London during 2016/17.

Causes of rough sleeping

Factors identified as contributing to the ongoing flow of new rough sleepers to the streets include: welfare reforms, particularly reductions in entitlement to Housing Benefit/Local Housing Allowance; reduced investment by local authorities in homeless services; and flows of non-UK nationals who are unable to access benefits.

Crisis commissioned the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York to conduct a review of single homelessness in the UK between 2000 and 2010. The study, A review of single homelessness in the UK (2011), provides an overview of the history, causes and policy responses to single homelessness, and assesses how successful these policies have been in tackling the issue. The study suggested some policy responses for the next decade.

Local authorities’ duties 

Local authorities in England do not have a duty to secure accommodation for all homeless people.  While they do have a duty to secure accommodation for unintentionally homeless households who fall into a ‘priority need’ category, those who approach an authority for help who are deemed to be homeless but not in priority need may find themselves sleeping rough.   

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which came into force on 3 April 2018, has placed new duties on local authorities to intervene earlier to prevent and relieve homelessness for all applicants irrespective of priority need. The new duties stop short of requiring local authorities to secure accommodation for non-priority need applicants.

Government initiatives

The Conservative Government elected in 2015 continued with the approach initiated under the Coalition. This No Second Night Out approach was piloted in London. A key aim was to ensure that no-one new to the streets sleeps out for a second night.  A Ministerial Working Group was established to prevent and reduce homelessness.

The current Government was elected with a manifesto commitment to “halve rough sleeping over the course of the parliament and eliminate it altogether by 2027”. The Autumn Budget 2017 set out the Government’s first steps towards achieving this commitment with:

  • £20 million to support innovative ways to prevent and reduce rough sleeping;
  • £10 million to develop a national Rough Sleeping Social Impact Bond; and
  • £28 million to pilot the Housing First approach for long-term rough sleepers in the Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester, and the West Midlands.

On 20 March 2018, the Communities Secretary, Savid Javid, announced a new cross-government plan to reduce the number of people sleeping rough and to meet the objectives set out in the Conservative Party Manifesto. 

New measures include:

  • a new Rough Sleeping Team made up of rough sleeping and homelessness experts, drawn from, and funded by government departments and agencies with specialist knowledge across a wide-range of areas from housing, mental health to addiction;
  • a £30 million fund for 2018 to 2019 with further funding agreed for 2019 to 2020 targeted at local authorities with high numbers of people sleeping rough; and
  • £100,000 funding to support frontline Rough Sleeping workers across the country to make sure they have the right skills and knowledge to work with vulnerable rough sleepers.

As noted above, the Government supported the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 as a keys means of preventing rough sleeping. A total of £72.7 million will be allocated to local authorities to assist in implementing the Act’s provisions.


The Mayor of London has also put in place a range of measures intended to improve rough sleepers’ access to services and support in London, including a ‘No Nights Sleeping Rough’ taskforce and guidance to improve the provision of emergency accommodation in severe weather.

Calls for further action

Organisations working in the sector have called for an effective safety net and a long-term homelessness strategy backed by investment to deliver it. Some organisations support legislation to extend the priority need categories to cover all homeless people, an approach already adopted in Scotland.  In December 2017, the Public Accounts Committee published a report which criticised the Government’s approach to rising homelessness:

The Department for Communities and Local Government’s attitude to reducing homelessness has been unacceptably complacent. The limited action that it has taken has lacked the urgency that is so badly needed and its “light touch” approach to working with the local authorities tackling homelessness has clearly failed.

The Department is placing great reliance on the new Homelessness Reduction Act to provide the solution to homelessness.

While this new legislation will no doubt help, it cannot be successful unless it is matched by a renewed focus across government on tackling the twin issues of both the supply and affordability of decent housing, which underlie the causes of homelessness.

Homeless Link welcomed the Government’s new measures announced in March 2018 as a “positive start” towards the development of a “national rough sleeping strategy”.  However, it also advised the Government to tackle “structural causes” such as poverty, welfare issues, and lack of housing.

Commons Library briefings

Further reading

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