What do we really know about levels of homelessness in this country?

18 February 2019

Outreach work in the city of Birmingham has shown me that the effects of homelessness are malignant and often rapid.

When volunteering in a frontline organisation to provide food, support and advice to the homeless population, it became clear to me that those issues which may have led to homelessness tend to immediately worsen once an individual finds themselves in such circumstances. Furthermore, many of those who were healthy upon becoming homeless quickly began to develop significant issues affecting physical and mental health. This often has grave consequences; the average age of death for a homeless person in the UK is 47 for men and 43 for women, compared to 77 for the general population[1].

Focusing in on London, when temperatures drop below freezing severe weather shelters open their doors to the capital’s homeless population, with places funded by City Hall and London Boroughs. This year, shelters have opened city wide as part of London’s first Rough Sleeping Plan of Action[2]. Published in June 2018, it focuses on providing an immediate, safe and sustainable route off the streets, aiming to reduce homelessness at all levels, from prevention through to outreach and long-term solutions.

This initiative is very welcome, but a key question remains: do we know how many homeless people there are in the UK? A glance at the available statistics on homelessness would leave most of us confused and unsure of the facts. In London specifically, the latest snapshot figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) identified 1,283 people sleeping rough in Autumn 2018[3], while the Combined Homelessness and Information Network’s figures for the same period – using a different methodology – were 3,289[4]. A third estimate comes from the Mayor of London’s plan, which cites a figure of 7,500 people sleeping out in the capital in 2017/18[5].

It is clear there is little consistency in the figures, especially for rough sleeping. Many commentators have questioned the credibility of the Government’s official figures this year, particularly for the 33 authorities recording zero rough sleepers under the “snapshot” methodology[6]. Internal analysis conducted by our own Ian Moore highlights issues arising from changing methods of data collection: the MHCLG acknowledges that 64 Local Authorities changed the basis of the statistics from the previous year to the current year, with those using the same approach as last year (262) reporting an increase of 2%. Detailed examination suggests that 94 authorities changed methods, and those on like-for-like saw a 5% increase. These changes mean that the headline message from the Government’s official figures, of a 6% reduction across the rest of England, does not stand up to closer scrutiny.

Some individual examples are very clear. MHCLG published a table of the top ten authorities for increases and decreases, and in the latter, we see Brighton (down 64%), Eastbourne (down 85%) and Worthing (down 69%). These are all areas that are part of the Government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative; is something positive happening on the South Coast? Upon investigation, it appears all three have changed methodology this year, so it is not clear if this represents a real improvement or just faulty statistics. The official statistics watchdog, the Office for Statistics Regulation, shares these concerns and has called for statistics which provide a more complete picture of homelessness and rough sleeping in England[7].

We must therefore seek to improve the quality and consistency of our data here. Fortunately, the new H-CLIC data collection introduced as part of the 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act (England only) will build a powerful dataset for the future and may even help assess the cost-effectiveness of different interventions. 

Pro Bono Economics also announced last month a new partnership with fellow volunteering charities Pilotlight and Cranfield Trust, which we will see us work with 10 homelessness charities to provide impact and strategy projects over the coming two years. By offering a bespoke programme of support, tailored to each individual charity, we hope to help them secure their futures by arming them with impact and strategy support to survive and thrive. We will also seek to collate the learnings from this body of work in a bid to share any methodological insights with organisations working in this space, all the while recognising the uniqueness of not just every charity, but of everyone who finds themselves homeless, and through this the need to provide personalised support.

Overall, we must equip policymakers with the right information to identify best practice so they can develop the most successful and cost-effective real solutions for those who are already homeless and those at risk of homelessness. It is our hope that Pro Bono Economics work in this regard can make a valuable contribution to our collective understanding of this extremely serious issue.

This blog was authored by Pro Bono Economics' Projects and Communications Co-ordinator Isobel Hunter. The views expressed in this blog are those of the blog’s author alone and do not necessarily represent those of Pro Bono Economics.

[1] Gill Leng (2017), “The Impact of Homelessness on Health”, available: https://www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/22.7%20HEALTH%20A...

[2] Greater London Authority (2018), “Rough Sleeping Plan of Action”, available: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/rough_sleeping_plan_of_act...

[3] Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (2018), “Rough Sleeping Statistics”, available: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploa...   

[4] ibid

[5] Greater London Authority (2018), “Rough Sleeping Plan of Action”, available: https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/rough_sleeping_plan_of_act...

[6] Chris York (2019), “The Government Says Homeless Rates Have Dropped – But That’s Not Quite The Full Story”, available: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/homeless-rates-england-2018_uk_5c...

[7] UK Statistics Authority (2015), “Statistics on Homelessness and Rough Sleeping in England (Department for Communities and Local Government)”, https://www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/publication/statistics-on-homeles...

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