The 2019 count in England recorded 4,266 rough sleepers, this represents a fall of 9% on 2018 but an increase of 141% on the 2010 count (1,768). This briefing paper provides background information on the causes of rough sleeping and local authorities' duties. The paper covers the Government's approach to meeting its ambition of ending rough sleeping by the end of the current Parliament. A separate paper, Coronavirus: Housing support, covers specific measures in place to assist rough sleepers during the pandemic.

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Local authorities’ duties

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. 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).

Government initiatives

Successive Governments have put in place initiatives to tackle rough sleeping.  The Rough Sleepers Initiative operated between 1990 and 1999 until it was replaced by Labour’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.

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. The study suggested some policy responses for the following decade.

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 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. The Rough Sleeping Strategy was published in August 2018, this strategy was 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 Casey. A further increase in funding to tackle rough sleeping was announced as part of Budget 2020.

How many rough sleepers?

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 a further 9% in 2019, although the 2019 count still represented a 141% increase on the 1,768 recorded in 2010. A total of 4,266 rough sleepers were recorded in 2019, of whom just over a quarter were in London. Robert Jenrick welcomed the decrease in numbers of rough sleepers saying, “the Government’s strategy is working” but acknowledged that “there is a great deal more to do”.

Rough sleeping is at its most severe in London. The latest financial year report from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) database, CHAIN Greater London Annual Report 2017-18 shows that a total of 7,484 rough sleepers were contacted by outreach workers or building-based teams in London during 2017/18, representing a 7.7% decrease on the previous year.

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.

Approaches to tackling rough sleeping

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.

The Rough Sleeping Strategy was welcomed by the sector but organisations such as the Rough Sleeping Advisory Panel have called for more to be done in, for example, areas such as cross-departmental working; developing more social housing; welfare reform; and security of tenure in the private rented sector.

Other relevant Library briefings

Housing First: tackling homelessness for those with complex needs

Rough sleepers: access to services and support (England)

Rough Sleepers and Anti-Social Behaviour (England)

Statutory Homelessness in England

Households in temporary accommodation (England)

Comparison of homelessness duties in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

Applying as homeless from an assured shorthold tenancy (England)

Coronavirus: Housing support (the final section covers action taken in regard to rough sleepers during the pandemic)

  • Commons Research Briefing SN02007
  • Authors: Cassie Barton, Wendy Wilson
  • Topics: Housing & Planning

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