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Measuring and analysing rough sleeping: Is this really the best we can do?

Shortly the annual homelessness statistics will be released. The latest London figures for March and April 2012 show an increase in new rough sleepers of 73% in comparison with the same period in 2011 so we can expect some staggering annual figures. There will be a universal wailing and gnashing of teeth. Indeed, I am contemplating booking myself in for some remedial dental treatment in advance. I fear that there will be a rise in the number of long-term entrenched rough sleepers too, not just new arrivals, though judging how great the increase will be is a difficult call.

What is far easier to predict is the response to these figures because, by now, we are bound into a familiar ritual where each participant implicitly knows their role. It’s a dance where we all take our partners, and then off we go.  A type of St Vitus’ dance perhaps, which I understand is a disease characterised by rapid, uncoordinated and jerking movements. 

This is my prediction: The rough sleeping statistics will be released and the quality of the narrative accompanying them, whether produced by central government, local authorities or voluntary sector providers will be lamentably poor. Big numbers will be bandied about. The frontline homelessness charities will berate the government and ominously note that this is just the beginning. Government representatives will state that the figures are of concern but that at least the problem is being measured properly, unlike when the other lot were in charge. The Opposition will naturally be outraged that the figures are going through the roof and will, in my view wrongly, attribute the increase in rough sleeping primarily to the government’s housing and welfare reforms.   

Measuring the extent of rough sleeping is not an exact science and there is no better example of how a thoughtful accompanying narrative could provide some essential context to figures. But it seems that there is little appetite for doing so. Perhaps it is because organisations working with the homeless feel that the bigger the numbers, the greater the likelihood of the government being held to account for what many now regard as a homelessness catastrophe. This is no time for measured analysis and reflective discourse they might argue, we require uproar and outrage.

But the raw figures left unexamined and unexplained do an injustice to the work taking place on the ground with rough sleepers. Just take the example of the aforementioned rough sleeping figures for March and April. Some investigation uncovers that although there were 667 new rough sleepers, 515 (77%) slept rough for only a single night, a further 133 spent more than a single night out but less than three weeks and only 19 (3%) were still rough sleeping three weeks later.  This is a massive improvement on the comparable performance for the same period in 2011 and vindicates the introduction of the No Second Night Out initiative in London and now rolling out in other cities which appears to be doing exactly what it says on the tin.

The way we measure rough sleeping is now entirely discredited. If we had deliberately set out to mystify then we could not have done a better job. We confuse by seeking to label everyone contacted by the street teams as rough sleepers. Some of the people the teams meet are assisted to leave the street within hours or days and, at the other extreme, a few individuals the teams engage with have slept rough for decades. The first group have a mercifully brief experience of bedding down in a shop doorway before moving on with their lives. Those in the latter group have, for different reasons, taken to literally living on the streets. They are the individuals perceived by the public to be rough sleepers. The more efficient the teams are at contacting people quickly, the bigger becomes the overall total of people we recklessly bag-up within this broad classification of rough sleepers.  

Layered on top of the illogicality of grouping together individuals with such disparate experiences and life histories are the baffling national statistics based on single snap-shot street counts of rough sleeping. Naturally this approach will produce a much smaller figure than the cumulative figure compiled by outreach teams over a year, as happens in London and a few other cities. The result is that invariably there is a howl of protest from a local day centre or similar service which believes that the figure is a gross underestimate of the real problem and on one level they are correct; it is simply a snapshot street count figure. 

But this rich broth of confusion needs yet another stir. The government has allowed local authorities to provide estimates and not undertake street counts. Some choose to estimate while others continue to undertake street counts. The reliability of these estimates is highly questionable and it doesn’t surprise me that the biggest increase in rough sleeping is in those areas providing them. We are now not measuring like with like and the rough sleeping ‘league table’ is utterly implausible. For example, the last set of figures show that Taunton had as many rough sleepers as the City of London and the London Borough of Camden combined.   

So I await those big figures with trepidation. Yet it is a small figure that most bothers me.  One recent very successful initiative in the capital was a targeted programme to assist 205, later increased to 349, of the mostly entrenched rough sleepers to come off of the street and into accommodation.  Encouragingly two-thirds of this group was helped to leave rough sleeping behind through some imaginative, focused interventions.  However, over the 15-month period of the initiative 13 of the 349 died. 

There is the annual rough sleepers count and the annual rough sleepers cull. I am sure that I speak for many when I say that it is this small, grim figure that provides the real motivation for pushing on to achieve what we all want to see; for rough sleeping to become an historical curiosity which those coming after us will regard with shocked bemusement.                
A version of this blog was published in Inside Housing on June 8th 2012


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