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We need evidence-based action to end rough sleeping, not post-truth emotional spasms

In my first year working with homeless people an older colleague, with foreboding, informed me that the homeless people we were supporting were more complex, challenging and needy than anybody had previously experienced.  I remember being shocked, considering it remarkable that I should be starting at the very time when the profile of the homeless population was changing so dramatically. It didn’t occur to me to ask ‘how do you know?’ 

Every year since, I have heard something like this same statement made. I was therefore not in a condition to be knocked down by a feather when, as a predictable pre-Christmas truism, it was stated that those working with the homeless were encountering an unprecedented increase in ‘the range of complex issues’. Wiser now, I understand that what I first heard those thirty years ago was hyperbole.      

A degree of embellishment in the context of such an emotive issue as homelessness is, perhaps, inevitable. However, when hyperbole descends into factual misinformation, we homelessness campaigners do ourselves no favours. When a high-profile Christmas campaign claimed 80% of London’s rough sleepers to be between 18 and 25, reliable data showing the real figure to be 10% the pointer on the bullshit detector dial really did begin oscillating crazily.

I’ve also noticed a perverse reaction when statistics on rough sleeping are published where, if numbers are increasing, there is sometimes an unfortunate impression given of collective satisfaction from homelessness organisations, a form of, ‘there - we told you so’.  Whereas, if numbers are stable or falling the response is more likely to be a questioning of the validity of the data and even a palpable, lip-chewing anxiety.    

I remember participating in an annual street count in a London borough a couple of years ago when this troubling inversion, through which good becomes bad, struck me particularly forcibly. That night, one of the teams taking part in the count returned to base following a lengthy search of streets and parks, tired and deflated. Apologising to their colleagues they bemoaned the fact that, despite a rigorous search, not a single person sleeping rough had been found. This, I should emphasise, delivered entirely without irony.
So, at times it feels as if an unspoken consensus prevails which requires the mood music to remain unremittingly bleak as if, instinctively, we are more at ease with the comforting familiarity of doom and gloom.

Moreover, I’ve heard it proposed that the numbers really don’t matter that much; even that a focus on figures is a fixation with a cultural dimension. Three years ago at an over-crowded homeless day centre in Paris I asked the beleaguered manager how many people slept rough in the city. ‘Between 5,000 and 7,000’ he answered. I persisted: ‘Is it 5,000 or 7,000?’ ‘Between 5,000 and 7,000 he unwaveringly repeated, adding, ‘What about in London?’  I gave him the precise, to a single digit, figure from the London annual statistics. ‘You are so Anglo-Saxon!’ he responded, breaking into a disarming smile.

But credible statistics must matter. To end rough sleeping we need know how many people are on the street, who they are and what approaches to tackling street homelessness, including preventative measures, work. We can then target resources to make the greatest impact. Yet, at times, there appears to be a curious indifference to investigating which interventions are succeeding, even unwillingness to acknowledge that we are making any headway at all.

For instance, statistics covering the last two quarters indicate that the number of people sleeping rough in the capital is reducing. We don’t yet know whether these figures are a blip or will constitute a trend.  Certainly Thames Reach’s teams continue to find demoralisingly high numbers of rough sleepers on London’s streets.  Nonetheless, should we not be analysing what went right for the 525 people who, the most recent quarterly figures show, were successfully helped off of the street? Whatever is working is worth exploring, with a view to doing more of it.

London is fortunate in having agreed protocols for recording rough sleepers on a cumulative, night-by-night basis, unlike most other cities. To establish a national rough sleeping figure we are still dependent on the street counts which take place every November. Unfortunately most local authorities provide estimates rather than undertake actual night-time counts. With respect to the last national count for which we have statistics (2016), just 14% of local authorities chose to count and the UK Statistics Authority has concluded that the rough sleeping figures in their current form do not meet the required standards of ‘trustworthiness, quality and value’ necessary to be designated as national statistics, something the Department for Communities and Local Government is actively seeking to rectify. 

Encouragingly, there are notable efforts underway elsewhere to produce better homelessness data and a credible evidence base. The European End Street Homelessness Campaign, a collaboration of organisations from different European cities, is actively seeking to improve ways of collecting detailed, relevant information on rough sleepers’ needs to achieve better outcomes and accurately track progress towards ending chronic street homelessness.   

Yet we do not convincingly show an unwavering determination to seek the hard data and evidence-based solutions to address the human catastrophe of rough sleeping. We can even give the impression that its continuation is rather convenient.  After all, we have long-fetishised street homelessness and the image of a rough sleeper in a doorway is virtually a brand. Of course we want to end rough sleeping – it is brutal and morally unacceptable in this second decade of the twenty-first century. But we must do far more to show that we are implacably in defiance of this post-truth era, with its corrupting appeals to emotion designed to make truth of secondary importance.      

A shorter version of this blog was published in Inside Housing magazine on-line on January 10th 2017. This blog was updated following the release of the 2016 rough sleeping statistics by the Department for Communities and Local Government on 25th January 2017       


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