Who, What, Why: How do you count rough sleepers?

Rough sleeper There's more than one counting method in use

Government figures suggest the number of homeless people sleeping rough on the streets is falling, but a minister says the system for counting them is flawed. How are the numbers calculated?

They live on the fringes of society - and, by definition, their routines are usually chaotic and troubled, making the task of counting them a difficult one.

According to the most recent official government data - calculated differently by the various authorities - the number of rough sleepers in England stood at 440, in Scotland an average of 232 a month and in Northern Ireland at fewer than 10 on any given night. Wales stopped counting in 2009.

However, housing minister Grant Shapps believes the English figure is too low - arguing that, under the previous government's system, councils with fewer than 10 rough sleepers were not obliged to count them, and that vagrants sitting up in sleeping bags were not counted as homeless.

While rough sleeping is far from the only form of homelessness - many individuals and families may have a roof over their heads yet no home to call their own - it is its most visible manifestation.

After Mr Shapps insisted that councils provide estimates, the England-wide figure rose to 1,247.

The Answer

  • Official figures - calculated differently - have 440 in England; average of 232 a month in Scotland; and fewer than 10 on any given night in Northern Ireland
  • Wales has stopped counting
  • Experimental estimate puts figure at 1,247
  • Database of those using outreach services estimates 3,673 in London - where 50% of England's rough sleepers are believed to be

But according to a database, the Combined Homeless and Information Network (Chain), which tallies those accessing outreach services in London, some 3,673 people slept rough at some point in 2009 in the capital - which is believed to take in half of the country's rough sleepers.

It is a confusing set of figures, and Mr Shapps himself has acknowledged that the picture is currently unclear.

"That's why I will shortly publish plans for a complete overhaul of the way the problem of rough sleeping is assessed, so councils and charities can be given a credible measure of the problem in their area," he said.

Under the existing system, in which councils are only compelled to count if they have more than 10 rough sleepers, just 70 councils regularly conducted street counts - one of those not counted being Manchester, England's third largest city.

Counting England's rough sleepers

Homelessness table
  • Before 2001, a combination of street counts and estimates was used
  • From 2001, councils with more than 10 rough sleepers conduct street counts one night a year
  • In 2010, the the 256 authorities that did not count were asked to provide estimates of rough sleepers on any given night

When Mr Shapps asked a further 256 local authorities to provide estimates, another 807 were added to the tally.

Additionally, the current system tallied only the number of people homeless on the streets on one night a year - a figure that has been criticised by charities, which believe the Chain data paints a more disturbing picture.

As it stands, rough sleepers are defined for the purpose of the statistics as "people sleeping, or bedded down, in the open air (such as on the streets, or in doorways, parks or bus shelters); people in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or 'bashes')".

Mr Shapps argued that this meant people sitting up in a sleeping bag would not be counted.

The devolved authorities all have their own mechanisms for arriving at estimates.

In Scotland, those making homelessness applications to local authorities are asked if they slept rough the night before applying for assistance.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive says its street outreach service deals with fewer than 10 rough sleepers a night.


Question mark

A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

Wales stopped attempting to calculate the figure in 2009 "due to concerns around the accuracy of the counts". Its final estimate in March 2008 put the number of rough sleepers across Wales is between 128 to 165 people.

Leslie Morphy, chief executive of the homeless charity Crisis, welcomes the new English method and the consultation, but warned that the problem could be made worse by housing benefit cuts in the budget.

"Now the government recognises how serious the situation is, we hope that no decision will be made to make the situation worse still," Ms Morphy adds.

A selection of your comments appears below

I volunteer at a homeless charity that had its funding withdrawn on the grounds that there is only one homeless person in the district. Now, I've never seen less than 20 turn up for lunch. Changing the counting rules is an excellent idea because dodgy numbers lead to ignorant decisions like that one.

Reid, Lancaster

An additional question could be - how many rough sleepers would there be if churches and charities didn't provide emergency accommodation for so many? With the economic downturn, and some charities finding it difficult to provide all the services they have been in the economic downturn, this number is in danger of rising because the emergency accommodation that people have been relying on is becoming less available.

Peter T, Glasgow

I represent Catching Lives (catchinglives.org), a homeless charity in Canterbury - often a figurehead of homelessness due to being home of C of E. Your article highlights the very issue we are trying to promote here. Local official survey showed <4 homeless people. Our count is 30>. We are also seeing significant increases in numbers homeless and also of those accessing our day centre services. The number of vulnerably housed is also a hidden problem and with greater economic strife this is where the greatest displacement appears to be coming from.

Alex Ridings, Canterbury

I used to volunteer at a homeless shelter and on the nights when there was going to be a count of rough sleepers, the shelter did not charge. Also there was a round up of rough sleepers to get them into the free places. On these nights the shelter was full to overflowing, with extras being sent to the YMCA, and had their bed paid for. This must definitely have skewed the figures.

Fiona Cannon, Bath

Seems an odd way of doing it: "Under the existing system, in which councils are only compelled to count if they have more than 10 rough sleepers" How do the councils know they have less than 10 rough sleepers without actually counting them?

Stuart Cherrington, Bracknell

I would make it illegal to sleep on the street, but of course we would need a process for helping people get off the street as well. People sleeping on the street would (if they couldn't show a place that they live) be sentenced to living in a government run hostel and would be made to do community service, until such time as they had both a place of their own to live and a source of income. I know mine is a radical idea that has flavours of the workhouse about it, but letting people live rough on the street is no kind of liberty. There must be a time when we force our help upon those that need it.

John Barber, Exeter

My wife was a support worker for the homeless until recently. She had over 30 homeless clients in her case-load in the town of Wellingborough, however the official homeless figure was less than 10 because the council only counted people sleeping on public property on one night of the year: anyone sleeping rough on private property, such as in a shop doorway or on church steps, was not counted as being homeless. It's disgusting that councils deliberately side-step their responsibilities to these people, many of whom were under 18 and had to leave home because of intolerable abuse.

Ian Steele, Kettering

They did a "homeless sleeping rough" count across the whole of my county some years ago, to much amusement. They reckoned there was only 2, but I could name 2 just in my village. There was often more than half a dozen in Dorchester Market, and Pilsdon Community, Othona and Hillfield often get [and got] so many they are turned away. Conclusion? Did they just sit in a warm car and make it up? We'll never know, but the most uninformed of folk knew the count was risible.

Paul Loebig, Burton Bradstock, Dorset

This issue of counting rough sleepers has been going on for years. I took place in such a count through The Big Issue in 2000. The rules for counting stated that if a rough sleeper was awake they were not to be counted. The civil servants present actually woke people up - and then stated they were not to be counted. In the area concerned there were some 600 known rough sleepers - the count returned one. That guy was not homeless - just dead drunk and had fallen asleep in a place used by rough sleepers!

Political Cripple, Penzance

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