Rough sleepers unit 'fiddled the figures'

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The Government's Rough Sleepers Unit was accused last night of fabricating figures by clearing homeless people off the streets on the evening they were due to be counted.

The Government's Rough Sleepers Unit was accused last night of fabricating figures by clearing homeless people off the streets on the evening they were due to be counted.

One of Britain's most respected homelessness charities, the Simon Community, is claiming that parties were held in hostels and vagrants were bundled into hastily enlarged shelters as part of a concerted effort to keep the numbers low.

The new accusations come as Crisis re-opens its traditional Christmas shelter in east London, and a bitter cold snap threatens to leave hundreds of other rough sleepers huddling in shop doorways over the festive period.

The claims will reawaken the controversy caused by the RSU's announcement three weeks ago that thanks to a £201m campaign, rough sleeper numbers had plunged from 1,850 to 532 in three years, a claim met with widespread scepticism.

The claims stem from a meeting of 35 outreach workers who complained to their union, the TGWU, that they had been forced to help fix the count on 20 November. One hostel, Kingsgate House in central London, held a party that night, and allegedly encouraged residents to invite friends, many of them rough sleepers. A second London shelter, Bondway, is said to have converted its dining room into a temporary dormitory.

Simon Community chairman Phillip Burke said: "We are very concerned that respected organisations within the homeless sector complied with practices that were obscene and immoral. The entire process is corrupted from start to finish."

One outreach worker, Jean Demars, 21, said: "I received a call from one of the agencies employed by the RSU the day before the count. They asked me to keep one of our clients in for an extra night. They just wanted to keep the figures low – I refused."

The reliability of the figures has been questioned by community workers around the country. A Big Issue worker in Brighton recently counted 47 rough sleepers in one night; the RSU gives the city's tally as six. An average 70 people regularly turn up at soup kitchens in Bristol and 50 do so in Blackpool. The RSU's rough sleeping figures for the two cities are seven and four respectively.

While the number of rough sleepers has declined, charities are alarmed by the rise in the overall number of homeless. New figures confirm that the numbers living in temporary accommodation have soared by 75 per cent since 1997 – to a peak of 175,000. Both the Simon Community and Crisis, which opens its Christmas shelter in east London today, estimate that a further 400,000 "hidden" homeless do not appear in any official statistics.

A spokesman for the charity St Mungo's confirmed that its Kingsgate hostel held a party on the night of the count, but said that it had coincided with the return of its manager from holiday. Extra beds were only installed in the Bondway shelter at the request of outreach workers.

Homelessness "tsar" Louise Casey, who co-ordinates the regular head counts, denied pressure had been put on charities to manipulate statistics. "These are morally upstanding people and they didn't try to encourage people to come in off the streets," she said. "We wouldn't get caught up in things like that to distort the figures."

* Energywatch, the consumers' body set up by Parliament, has warned ministers that nearly 2.5 million people who are too poor to pay for their gas and electricity by quarterly bill will be charged even higher prices because of moves to increase competition between power companies.