How do you calculate how many people are sleeping rough? That is the question councils will be asking themselves over the next few weeks as they collect data for the government’s annual snapshot, usually published in January.
Local authorities are required to send the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government a figure representing the picture on a single night each autumn. This can be based on an estimate or street count.
The method used by councils has generated controversy as the MHCLG seeks to demonstrate its rough sleeping initiative (RSI), introduced in spring 2018, is having an impact.
An evaluation published by the ministry in September concluded that the RSI led to a 32% fall in rough sleeping in 83 areas that received funding in 2018/19, based on forecasting what would have occurred without the initiative.
But the MHCLG’s use and presentation of figures has twice been criticised this year by the Office for Statistics Regulation, part of the UK Statistics Authority. The MHCLG based its conclusions on comparing figures for autumn 2017, before the initiative started, with autumn 2018.
But as some councils switched from estimates to counts in 2018, statisticians were not necessarily comparing like with like. 'Rough sleeping figures are moving year on year,' says Ed Humpherson, the OSR’s director general. 'That could well not be a product of changing patterns in rough sleeping but changing patterns of method.”'
Following an initial letter in July, Mr Humpherson wrote to the ministry again at the start of October, praising its analysis of the RSI but regretting the way the MHCLG set out the findings in a press notice, most especially the headline. This failed to stress that the reduction was based on forecasting.
Analysts that carried out the study should, he says, have ‘signed off’ the ministry’s communications, as happens elsewhere in Whitehall. 'That would be our normal expectation,' he adds.
Among councils in the RSI that changed their method of calculation was Southend-on-Sea, which counted 11 rough sleepers last November. This compares with an estimate of 72 the previous year.
Phill Warren, Southend’s interim head of community housing, says the council was encouraged to change by the MHCLG, which is providing the town with nearly £1m over two years. 'They wanted to get a sense of what is out there on the ground on the night in question,' he says.
Both counts and estimates are snapshots, he points out, and an estimate based on strong evidence from organisations that assist homeless people can provide just an accurate a picture. But does the fall from 72 to 11 over one year truly reflect the impact of the RSI?
Warren believes it probably does, with further counts carried out every two months (a requirement of RSI funding) also showing a reduction. 'In most doorways you used to see people [sleeping rough]. That’s no longer the case,' he says.
Figures for Autumn 2018 showed rough sleeping down by 2% across England to 4,677, but still considerably higher than the 1,768 reported in 2010. Councils in the RSI received £30m for extra bed spaces and support workers.
In RSI areas, rough sleeping was reported down by 639 to 2,748, but this includes 19 councils with increases, while three recorded no change. In Croydon, where the council reported a reduction from 31 to 15 last November, deputy leader Alison Butler joined staff in surveying the streets.
Croydon used a count in both 2017 and 2018. While Butler believes the trend is down, she noted 15 people who were sleeping in the church hall were not counted, even though they might easily have been on the streets the next morning.
At the same time, it is likely that a similar number were in the same night shelter the previous year. 'There has been a reduction but you’re never going to find everyone who is sleeping rough in a borough the size of Croydon,' she says.
The largest fall came in Brighton and Hove, which counted 64 rough sleepers last November, down from 178 the previous year, when an estimate was used. Street counts in 2019 show numbers varying from 30 in January to 107 in August.
Last autumn, 19 authorities in the RSI switched from an estimate to a count, while one went from a count to an estimate. In its evaluation, the MHCLG says councils chose the best method for their area but may have switched to counts as more outreach workers were available. It found no evidence that a change in approach made a 'statistically significant impact' on levels of rough sleeping reported.
Counts and estimates are verified by the charity Homeless Link. Tasmin Maitland, its assistant director for practice, says producing an accurate figure is difficult due to the transient lifestyles of rough sleepers. Depending on the nature of an area, estimates based on sound intelligence may provide just as reliable a figure.
'Councils should choose the method that’s best for them,' says Ms Maitland. 'If people change the process from one year to the next, I ask them why.' Nationally, she adds, the figures are an accurate snapshot at any given time. 'It’s an indication of trends over time, but it shouldn’t be the only data that’s used.'
In Leicester, the council used a count in 2017 and 2018 and came up with the same figure - 31 - both times. But they were not the same people, says Gary Freestone, service manager for homeless prevention, as anyone sleeping rough is asked their name and officers get to know who is receiving support.
Given that the RSI only got underway in Leicester in summer 2018, last autumn was too early to judge whether it was having an impact, he adds. Counts carried out this year continue to show just over 30 people sleeping rough.
Freestone has no doubt that people assisted through the RSI are replaced by new rough sleepers, but he is a strong advocate of counting rather than estimating, partly to appreciate the scale of the problem. 'You see the city at sleep,' he says. 'You can look at the figures, but seeing it first-hand focuses the mind.'
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