It’s daytime and you’re walking through town. You’re on your way to your favourite café or maybe you’re going to buy some clothes. You may be about to spend a bit of money, but you deserve it, don’t you? On your way, you walk past someone say on the floor with a sign. Looks like they’re begging for money. You think to yourself ‘I don’t have any spare change’, so you do nothing.
It happens to a lot of people. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve been there too. You see them, but you didn’t say hello or even smile.
“Half the time, we get ignored. We are invisible. And that’s frustrating.”Brock, ‘Four Feet Under: Thirty Untold Stories of Homelessness in London’
That beggar might not be the only one you see. Rough sleepers are more than just beggars too. Begging is just what some do to afford a coffee or a shelter – a reprieve from desperation and the cardboard box. There are many others who regularly hide away from sight – living in fear of the abuse that they often receive or just wanting a quiet life.
Rough sleepers aren’t all the same. They’re from all backgrounds and this situation can happen to anyone. All you need is something like losing your job, a bad split, domestic abuse or suffering a mental health crisis that sends you into a spiral. Pre-conceived notions of them all being ‘druggies’ or ‘drunks’ are utterly wrong and does nothing to solve one of this country’s biggest embarrassments.
Rough sleeping is only part of homelessness. Whilst often used interchangeably in conversation, they are not the same thing. The government defines rough sleeping as:
- People sleeping, about to bed down or actually bedded down in the open air
- People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation
- Not in hostels, shelters, campsites or other sites used for recreation.
Problems with counting
Each year local authorities have to publish figures about rough sleepers. These ‘snapshots’ show there are rough sleepers everywhere, but there are many places with hardly any at all. I looked at 13 years’ worth of snapshots and found that in that period, one local authority only recorded a rough sleeper once (Isles of Scilly) and three didn’t record any ten times (Blaby, Gedling & Richmondshire).
I made the above graph using a decade’s worth of rough sleeping statistics as well as population estimates from the Office for National Statistics. You can see that rough sleepers represent a fraction of the population. It seems good and makes you think the problem isn’t so bad, but the official figures are badly wrong.
According to guidance, local authorities can do an estimate or a count. Counts can only take place between 1 October and 30 November.
Government figures show that only 18% of local authorities did counts in 2022, so over 80% rely on some form of estimate and don’t know the reality. We also have no accurate idea of what rough sleeping is like for the rest of the year. It is well known that many rough sleepers move around and cross borders. As different local authorities can do counts on different days, it could mean that one person is counted twice!
You’ll remember the official figures don’t include those in shelters and hostels. Many rough sleepers don’t stay in them for long periods due to cost and lack of availability. If the count takes place when a rough sleeper gets off the street for just one night, they won’t be counted and will remain invisible.
In March, North East Derbyshire Council stated that 20 homeless people AND rough sleepers were housed in a local hotel. This is despite the government figures saying they haven’t had any rough sleepers since 2018.
To further prove that these counts are a failure, let’s consider ‘Everyone In’ – a programme during the pandemic designed to get rough sleepers into temporary accommodation. The following figures are from The Museum of Homelessness:
The National Audit Office said the scheme provided information on the scale of the problem for the first time. A good sign, but this was only seen because of the worldwide pandemic.
Earlier I mentioned that Gedling Council had no rough sleepers for ten out of 13 years. Explain then how they were awarded grants totalling more than £500,000 to tackle homelessness AND rough sleeping (including helping to finance their rough sleeper strategy).
The Guardian also reported this back in 2020:
“The government’s snapshot for 2018 shows that there were 45 rough sleepers in Oxford. But over the whole of 2019 the local council said 430 people were recorded as sleeping rough at least once, according to the data gathered by the BBC. In Manchester the government’s figure was 123, while the council’s total was 679.”
Stories from the streets
While working on his series I was able to get in contact with real people who have slept rough. I wanted to get real life experiences and make sure everyone knows what actually happens. You’ll see these stories throughout the series.
“I’m currently 22 and have been addicted to drugs, alcohol and homeless/sofa surfing since before I turned 18 with little to no help from the doctors/addiction services. I live in West Yorkshire, near Leeds. Not exactly sure how I can really verify any of this, but I’m always here to lend a mouth for your ear if you’re going to be spreading awareness about this absolute s**** that’s happening all over”fiveheadwarrior
“One aspect of homelessness that people do not consider is that you slowly become invisible. The first time, I did not know this and didn’t realise until it was too late. It was like I had vanished, people on the street looked through me, no one would speak to me. Sometimes this worked in my favour if I needed to escape in a pinch but most of the time it was this surreal experience.”Derikoopa
So, there you have it. They’re invisible and not helped by society.
We are one of the most developed and rich economies in the world, yet there are people who call the street their home.
Local authorities may do the counts or estimates, but they’re not to blame for the problem. They are following poor government guidance that’s years old and are faced with a chronic lack of funding. Many cannot afford to do more expansive work and the government won’t include what they do in the official figures anyway.
‘Everyone In’ showed the official snapshots are a joke and need urgent reform. I will address this later on in the series.
The next part will focus on how rough sleeping in this country is as good as illegal. In future parts, I will also address the state of temporary accommodation options, plus propose meaningful solutions aimed at creating real change and getting us closer to eliminating rough sleeping.