Local authorities in England do not have a duty to secure accommodation for all homeless people. 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. In 2019, an estimated 778 homeless people died in England and Wales (this figure includes rough sleepers and people in emergency accommodation). The average age of death was 46 for men and 43 for women. Common causes were drug-related poisoning, suicide and alcohol-related causes.

Causes of rough sleeping

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 were in tackling the issue. There are similarities between reasons given for the first instance of rough sleeping and the causes of homelessness amongst households to whom authorities usually owe a full rehousing duty. For example, relationship breakdown is a significant factor, but single homeless individuals tend to have experienced more chaotic lifestyles and have a higher level of support needs.

Targets to reduce rough sleeping

Successive Governments have put in place initiatives to tackle rough sleeping. The Rough Sleepers Initiative operated between 1990 and 1999 until replaced by the Labour Government’s Homelessness Action Programme. Over the years some ambitious targets have been set; for example, Labour set a target in 1999 to achieve a two-thirds reduction in rough sleeping by 2002. No One Left Out (Labour, 2008) set a target of ending rough sleeping “once and for all” by 2012. The programmes registered significant successes (see section 4).

The 2017 Government was elected with a manifesto commitment to “halve rough sleeping over the course of the parliament and eliminate it altogether by 2027” by setting up a new homelessness reduction taskforce to focus on prevention and affordable housing, and by piloting a Housing First approach to tackling rough sleeping. The Government supported Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 which placed new duties on local authorities in England to prevent and relieve homeless for all eligible applicants from 3 April 2018. A Rough Sleeping Strategy was published in August 2018 backed-up by £100 million in funding for two years. The Rough Sleeping Strategy: delivery plan (December 2018) provided an update on progress in implementing the strategy’s 61 commitments and information on next steps. The first Impact evaluation of the Rough Sleeping Initiative 2018 was published in September 2019 – the evaluation recorded some successful outcomes.

The Conservative Manifesto December 2019 committed to ending “the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament” through an extension of the Rough Sleeping Initiative, Housing First, and using local services to meet the health and housing needs of people living on the streets. On publication of the 2019 rough sleeper counts in February 2020 (see below), the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, announced additional funding and a review of rough sleeping to be conducted by Dame Louise (now Baroness) Casey. A further increase in funding to tackle rough sleeping was announced as part of Budget 2020. The promised review has not been carried out due to focus on the Covid-19 response (see below).

Policy impact

Despite considerable efforts, the official rough sleeper counts showed increases every year after new methodology was introduced in autumn 2010 up to the autumn 2017 count. The results of the 2017 count were published on 25 January 2018 – a 169% increase in the number of people sleeping rough in England since 2010 was recorded. The recorded number of rough sleepers then fell by 2% in 2018 and 9% in 2019, although the 2019 count still represented a 141% increase on the 1,768 recorded in 2010. The 2020 count recorded a 37% drop in rough sleeping on 2019. The count coincided with a national lockdown and tier restrictions in response to Covid-19 which, the snapshot notes “is likely to have impacted people’s risk of rough sleeping and should be noted when comparing this year’s annual snapshot figures with previous years.” A total of 2,688 rough sleepers were recorded in 2020, of whom 44% were in London and the south east. The Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick welcomed the 2020 figures saying:

Ending rough sleeping is a personal mission for the Prime Minister and me – and we have made huge progress since he came into No.10 reducing rough sleeping by 43%.

The latest financial year report from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) database, CHAIN Greater London Annual Report 2019-20 reported that a total of 10,726 rough sleepers were contacted by outreach workers or building-based teams in London during 2019/20, representing an 21% increase on the previous year. 7,053 (66%) were seen rough sleeping for the first time.

Calls for further action and learning from Covid-19

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.

Organisations working in the sector call 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.

The Rough Sleeping Strategy (2018) was welcomed by the sector but organisations such as the Rough Sleeping Advisory Panel called for more to be done. For example, in areas such as cross-departmental working; developing more social housing; welfare reform; and security of tenure in the private rented sector. As noted above, the review of the strategy announced in 2020 has not happened.

The Government’s ‘Everyone In’ programme to assist rough sleepers through the Covid-19 crisis has been hailed as one of the most effective of its responses to the global pandemic. The sector is keen that the opportunity to build on it to end rough sleeping is not lost.

Covid-19 has highlighted the scale of the problem. By January 2021 the programmes in place had assisted 37,000 people. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee (May 2020) called for the “golden opportunity” to end rough sleeping not to be missed. The Committee recommended a dedicated funding stream of at least £100 million for local authorities; more support for those with no recourse to public funds; and an immediate boost to the supply of appropriate supported housing through increased grant funding and flexibility on Right to Buy receipts. The Government response was published on 25 June 2020. The Committee issued a further call for evidence with submissions up to 27 November 2020 – the inquiry is ongoing.

The National Audit Office (NAO) published a report on its investigation into the housing of rough sleepers during the Covid-19 pandemic in January 2021, the purpose of which is to support Parliament’s scrutiny of the Government’s Covid-19 response. The investigation concluded that Everyone In was “a considerable achievement”. Nevertheless, it also identified several key issues that the Government needs to address if it is to achieve its goal of ending rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament, including:

  • A need to build on knowledge of the scale of the problem to “understand fully the size and needs of this population and communicate this to local authorities.”
  • A need to develop a solution for those with no recourse to public funds.
  • A need to use the knowledge gained when the review of the Rough Sleeping Strategy is revisited.
  • A need to align initiatives and funding aimed at tackling rough sleeping.

Data indicates that the number of rough sleepers started to increase again towards the end of 2020. The New Policy Institute argues that the first lockdown generated homelessness and by autumn 2020 the Everyone In message was less emphatic, particularly for those with no recourse to public funds.

Both the HCLG Committee and the Public Accounts Committee have taken evidence on the Government’s response to rough sleeping during the pandemic. Evidence submitted from bodies such as Shelter includes recommendations on necessary actions to ensure the aim of ending rough sleeping by May 2024 is achieved.

The Public Accounts Committee published COVID-19: Housing people sleeping rough on 17 March 2021. The report records MHCLG’s “considerable achievements” but concludes:

MHCLG still does not have a plan for achieving or maintaining the government’s 2019 election commitment to end rough sleeping by May 2024: three years from now.

Other relevant Library papers

Housing First: tackling homelessness for those with complex needs

Coronavirus: Support for rough sleepers (England)

Rough sleepers: access to services and support (England)

Rough Sleepers and Anti-Social Behaviour (England)

Statutory Homelessness in England

Households in temporary accommodation (England) 


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