There is one small, grim figure that provides the best indication of how well we are tackling homelessness - the death count
The true measure
Shortly the annual homelessness statistics will be released. The latest London figures for March and April 2012 show an increase in new rough sleepers of 73 per cent compared with the same period in 2011, so we can expect some staggering annual figures. There will be a universal wailing and gnashing of teeth. I fear that there will be a rise in the number of long-term entrenched rough sleepers too, not just new arrivals - although how great the increase will be it is difficult to tell.
What is far easier to call is the response to these figures because, by now, we are bound into a familiar ritual where each participant implicitly knows their role. It’s a dance where we all take our partners, and then off we go.
A type of St Vitus’ dance perhaps, which is a disease characterised by rapid, unco-ordinated, jerking movements. This is my prediction: The rough sleeping statistics will be released and the quality of the narrative accompanying them, whether produced by central government, local authorities or voluntary sector providers, will be lamentably poor.
Big numbers will be bandied about. The front line homelessness charities will berate the government and ominously note that this is just the beginning. Government representatives will state that the figures are of concern, but that at least the problem is being measured properly, unlike when the other lot were in charge. The opposition will naturally be outraged that the figures are going through the roof and will - in my view wrongly - attribute the increase in rough sleeping primarily to the government’s housing and welfare reforms.
Measuring the extent of rough sleeping is not an exact science and there is no better example of how a thoughtful accompanying narrative could provide some essential context to figures. But it seems that there is little appetite for doing so. Just take the example of the aforementioned rough sleeping figures for March and April. Some investigation uncovers that although there were 667 new rough sleepers, 515 (77 per cent) slept rough for only a single night, a further 133 spent more than a single night out but less than three weeks and just 19 (3 per cent) were still rough sleeping three weeks later. This is a massive improvement on the comparable performance for the same period in 2011 and vindicates the introduction of the no second night out initiative in London, which appears to be doing exactly what it says on the tin.
The way we measure rough sleeping is now entirely discredited. If we had deliberately set out to mystify then we could not have done a better job. We confuse by seeking to label everyone contacted by the street teams as rough sleepers. Some of the people the teams meet are assisted to leave the street within hours or days and, at the other extreme, a few individuals the teams engage with have slept rough for decades.
The first group have a mercifully brief experience of bedding down in a shop doorway before moving on with their lives. Those in the latter group have, for different reasons, taken to literally living on the streets. They are the individuals perceived by the public to be rough sleepers. The more efficient the teams are at contacting people quickly, the bigger becomes the overall total of people we recklessly bag up within this broad classification of rough sleepers.
Layered on top of the illogicality of grouping together individuals with such disparate experiences and life histories are the baffling national statistics based on single, snapshot street counts of rough sleeping. Naturally this approach will produce a much smaller figure than the cumulative figure compiled by outreach teams over a year, as happens in London and a few other cities. The result is that invariably there is a howl of protest from a local day centre or similar service, which believes that the figure is a gross underestimate of the real problem. On one level they are correct; it is simply a snapshot street count figure.
But this rich broth of confusion needs yet another stir. The government has allowed local authorities to provide estimates and not undertake street counts. Some choose to estimate, while others continue to undertake street counts. The reliability of these estimates is highly questionable and it doesn’t surprise me that the biggest increase in rough sleeping is in those areas providing them. We are now not measuring like with like, and the rough sleeping ‘league table’ is utterly implausible. For example, the last set of figures show that Taunton had as many rough sleepers as the City of London and the London Borough of Camden combined.
So I await those big figures with trepidation. Yet it is a small figure that most bothers me. One recent very successful initiative in the capital was a targeted programme to assist 205 - later increased to 349 - entrenched rough sleepers to come off the street and into accommodation. Encouragingly two-thirds of this group was helped to leave rough sleeping behind through some imaginative, focused interventions. However, over the 15-month period of the initiative, 13 of the 349 died.
There is the annual rough sleepers count and the annual rough sleepers cull. I am sure I speak for many when I say that it is this small, grim figure that provides the real motivation for pushing on to achieve what we all want to see - for rough sleeping to become an historical curiosity which those coming after us will regard with shocked bemusement.
Jeremy Swain is chief executive of Thames Reach