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‘Good work being undone’: 11,000 people slept rough in London during Covid-19

Charities call for a national strategy to end rough sleeping as CHAIN figures show three per cent rise in a year despite Everyone In efforts

The number of people living on the streets in London rose by three per cent during the pandemic despite emergency efforts to protect those rough sleeping during the pandemic.

A total 11,018 people were seen sleeping rough in London between April 2020 and March 2021, an increase on the 10,726 people spotted by outreach workers and charities in the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) in the previous year. The figures show rough sleeping has almost doubled in the English capital in the last 10 years.

The rise comes despite the Everyone In efforts to protect rough sleepers in hotels and other emergency accommodation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s easy to think of this in broad numbers, but these are real lives, stories of people let down by a system that should protect themRick Henderson, Homeless Link chief executive

Rick Henderson, Homeless Link chief executive

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes has called for a national strategy to set out how the UK government can hit its target of ending rough sleeping by 2024.

“There is nothing inevitable about this. Last year we saw brilliant but short-lived measures that dramatically reduced the numbers of people sleeping rough. But the commitments made at the start of the pandemic have fallen away and this progress is now in imminent danger of being lost,” said Sparkes.

“As the government looks ahead to restrictions lifting across the country and the return to ‘normal’ life, it is unacceptable that we are seeing a return to pre-pandemic levels of rough sleeping across London. We are supposed to be building back better. We cannot and should not tolerate a society where people are left with no option but to bed down in doorways and underpasses.”

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Of the 11,000 people seen rough during the year-long period, 7,531 were spending their first night on the streets, amounting to 68 per cent of all people spotted sleeping rough and up seven per cent of the number of rough sleepers seen in 2019/20.

Homelessness workers helped 6,130 people into accommodation or reconnected them with their families during the year.

A third of those rough sleeping were recorded as being placed in Covid-19 emergency accommodation, though the statistics do not include people housed through Everyone In when the pandemic broke out in March 2020.

Rick Henderson, Homeless Link chief executive, said that while the Everyone In scheme was a “huge success” efforts to end rough sleeping for good must go beyond the emergency measure.

“We now find ourselves at a precipice. Without decisive action, much of the good work of the past 15 months risks being undone,” said Henderson. “The Everyone In programme is coming to an end, bringing with it the risk of many people still housed in hotels ending up back on the streets. Add to that the ending of the recent evictions ban, the winding down of the furlough scheme and a huge shortfall in affordable housing and it’s clear that many people will struggle to stay afloat in the coming months. 

“It’s easy to think of this in broad numbers, but these are real lives, stories of people let down by a system that should protect them. 

“But the recent delaying of the end of restrictions gives the government an opportunity to act. There is a clear chance now to build on the unconditional ethos of ‘Everyone In’ whilst also embracing the long-term housing options and support measures that we know are most effective in helping people leave homelessness for good.”

The Westminster government recently announced £203m funding for its nation Rough Sleeping Initiative to help rough sleepers rebuild their lives.

But Lorrita Johnson, The Salvation Army’s director of homelessness services, insisted more funding would be needed for ministers to reach their target of ending rough sleeping for good.

Johnson also called for rough sleeping statistics to be improved. The London-only CHAIN figures are considered to be more accurate than the one-night counts and estimates used for official national figures. Local authorities and charities carry out the rough sleeping counts on one night in autumn every year to produce official statistics in England and Wales. However, the CHAIN figures see multiple agencies track the flow of rough sleeping over time so are throught to be more accurate. 

But government figures on the number of people protected through the Everyone In scheme revealed more than 37,000 people had been placed in emergency accommodation during the pandemic – dwarfing both CHAIN and official statistics.

The Office for National Statistics collated UK-wide rough sleeping figures for the first time earlier this month – a move Johnson described as a “big step forward”.

“Only when we truly understand how many people are forced to sleep rough can we know what we must do to address the issue,” said Johnson. “ Without accurately knowing how many people are forced to call the streets their home, support services cannot be properly planned or sustainably funded.

“The Everyone In programme showed that the government has consistently underestimated the number of rough sleepers.” 

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