They were once described as a symbol of all that was wrong with Tory rule, the most visible victims of an uncaring society, the people one "stepped over" when leaving the opera.
But yesterday the homeless threatened to become a problem for Tony Blair amid claims that the Government was "massaging" the figures and that the numbers in temporary accommodation had soared.
The controversy was triggered when the Prime Minister announced a record drop in the number of those sleeping rough and the creation of a new Homelessness Directorate to co-ordinate strategy.
Mr Blair hailed the figures showing the number of rough sleepers had been cut by 71 per cent over the last three years, beating the Government's target six months ahead of schedule. The Government's Rough Sleepers Unit (RSU) found the number of those sleeping on the streets is at about 530, down dramatically on the 1,850 recorded in 1998.
The Prime Minister, who visited young people on a homeless project in east London, said the country could be proud that thousands of former rough sleepers were now rebuilding their lives.
"But we must not be complacent," he said. "These people, and the vulnerable people who are still choosing to sleep rough even though beds are available for them, will continue to need practical help."
Most homeless charities welcomed the fall in the figures, with Shelter declaring it, "an important milestone in the ultimate goal to eradicate street homelessness".
However, the shine was taken off Mr Blair's photocall when some outreach workers claimed the street figures had been "massaged" to allow ministers to meet their target.
Housing campaigners also warned that the Government was failing badly on the number of the "hidden homeless" – those in temporary housing such as B&Bs, hotels, hostels and emergency shelters.
Philip Burke, from the Simon Community, which works with rough sleepers in London, was concerned that the street figures, collated by the independent Homeless Link, did not represent the true scale of the problem. The RSU had tried to reduce numbers of rough sleepers on the night of the head count, he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Mr Burke, who wants an inquiry into the official figures, said: "We are very, very concerned and very angry."
Thames Reach Bondway, one of the agencies carrying out outreach work with rough sleepers in central London, also urged caution over the way the figures were interpreted. Jeremy Swain, the London charity's chief executive, said: "Street counts provide a useful snapshot of who is sleeping rough on any one given night but do not provide the full picture and can disguise the size of the problem."
Louise Casey, head of the RSU, denied there had been an attempt to massage the figures by trying to remove homeless people from the streets on the nights a census was taken.
She said: "I know it's a good news story and people sometimes find that hard to believe, but the truth of the matter is, over the last two and a half years, the numbers have steadily decreased.
"I can absolutely assure you that nothing was done special on any particular night, otherwise we would have a particular fall on one night."
Crisis, the homeless charity, stepped up its own criticism of the Government with a campaign to highlight the plight of Britain's 400,000 "hidden homeless" – those in temporary housing. Latest official figures show the number of homeless families in B&B hotels had risen 25 per cent in the past year to 11,340.
The number of people accepted as homeless by councils has risen by nearly 9,000 since 1997.Reuse content