'Flawed' counting system for rough sleepers to be changed

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The Independent Online

The current method for counting the number of rough sleepers in the UK will be radically overhauled to give a more accurate picture of how many people are sleeping on Britain’s streets, the government announced today.

A “snapshot” of rough sleepers is currently conducted once a year but homeless charities have long argued that the count is wildly inaccurate and severely underestimates the scale of the problem.

Only those areas of the country that believe they have more than ten rough sleepers are currently required to take part which means that just 76 out 353 local authorities bothered to conduct the survey last year.

Campaigners say the current count is riddled with flaws. Britain currently has an official rough sleeper population of just 464 with less than ten people supposedly living on the streets of major cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. Place like Newcastle and Lancaster, meanwhile, have just two officially documented rough sleepers.

Housing minister Grant Shapps said the government would bring in a new counting method by 2011 which would "better reflect the true scale of the problem."

“Councils and charities are doing a great job in helping people off the streets, but the current counting system makes a mockery of the scale of the problem they face," he said. "This coalition government will not stick our heads in the sand and ignore the true picture of the number of those facing life on the streets.”

The government has yet to decide what shape the new count will take but Mr Shapps said that a new-cross government committee pulling together eight separate departments would decide how best to proceed.

His announcement was generally welcomed by charities and local authorities with known rough sleeper problems. But there were also concerns that a revamped rough sleeper count would mean little if impending cuts resulted in vital services for homeless people being slashed over the coming months and years.

Leslie Morphy, chief executive of Crisis, said she “warmly welcomed” the new initiative but added: “It will be vital to ensure that both Government and local authorities provide the resources to back-up this new commitment and that the right services are delivered on the ground and are not cut.”

Claire Linnane, from Southwark Council, added: “Any attempt to improve the national count would be welcome. But they key is to secure long term funding to tackle homelessness and that is what is now at risk.”

As an example, Mrs Linnane highlighted the borough’s “migrant impact fund” which is at risk of being slashed in next week’s emergency budget.

Southwark is London’s largest landowner and has a prominent rough sleeper problem along the south bank of the Thames. Many inner city boroughs in the capital have a sizeable rough sleeper populations from those eastern and central European countries that recently joined the EU – known as the “A10” nations. Unlike British rough sleepers, A10 migrants are not allowed to access public funds unless they have been in full time employment for twelve months meaning many find it difficult to get off the streets and into hostels.

“The vast majority of our funding for these particularly vulnerable people comes from the department for Communities and Local Government (CLG),” she said. “If it went, we’d take a really big hit.”

As London is currently home to an estimated 40% of the UK’s rough sleepers, a more accurate homelessness count has been up and running in the capital for the past three years. The “Chain” count, which is run by the Broadway charity on behalf of the CLG, found that 3,472 people slept rough in London at some point in 2009/10, an increase of 455 from the previous year. Their new figures for the last twelve months will be published next month.

Howard Sinclair, Broadway’s chief executive, said: “If you wanted to really get an idea of how many rough sleepers there are in the country, in an ideal world you’d roll out something like Chain nationwide. But that’s probably unlikely to happen because of the costs involved.”

Campbell Robb, Chief Executive of Shelter, was also keen to emphasise that rough sleeping is only one part of the broader issue of homelessness in Britain. “Over 51,000 homeless households are currently trapped in temporary accommodation, desperately in need of a permanent roof over their head,” he said. “Alongside measures to tackle rough sleeping the government must continue to invest in much needed affordable housing to ensure anyone affected by homelessness can access a secure and stable place to live.”