Pam Orchard: The rise of rough sleeping in London

The Connection’s Chief Executive, Pam Orchard, responds to the latest data showing a rise in rough sleeping in the capital and explains why we need to face facts, how organisations can work together to resolve the homelessness crisis, and how the public can help.

Rough sleeping in London and Westminster: confronting the brutal facts

In the business classic Good to Great Jim Collins outlines principles which make businesses build and sustain success over the long term. One of his principles is to face the brutal facts. This is what we must do in the face of figures on rough sleeping in London, released last week.

The Connection at St Martin’s is based in Westminster, in the most concentrated area of rough sleeping in the UK. We are always busy and we notice that we are getting busier. The quarterly figures on rough sleeping confirm what we already know. Whilst England has achieved a small decrease in rough sleeping overall, in London there is a very different picture. The figures show that the number of people sleeping rough across London at the end of December 2018 had increased 25% on the previous year. Westminster has fared only slightly better – numbers are up by 20%. More concerning is that the increase in rough sleeping is speeding up.

This year, the rise is particularly pronounced in rough sleepers who are new to the streets. Initiatives such as No Second Night Out provide a rapid response to new rough sleepers and the number of those helped by this service are broadly on a par with last year. However, with such big increases in numbers hitting the streets, it is very challenging for these services to keep up. The figures also show a slow and steady increase in the number of women sleeping on the streets – they now make up around 17% of all rough sleepers in the borough, having traditionally made up only 10%.

Unfortunately, evidence indicates that the longer people are on the streets, the more likely they are to experience deteriorating physical and mental health. Assessments of rough sleepers in Westminster indicate that 55% experience mental health issues (the highest rate in London), 37% alcohol problems and 39% drug problems – with one in six reporting all three. The instance of these issues in Westminster are higher than the rest of the capital.

The scale of the problem is not limited to rough sleepers. In April last year we launched a Street Engagement Team to support those vulnerable people who travel into central London during the day and are therefore missed by the night-time counts and early morning outreach recorded in the CHAIN reports.

We cannot avoid the reality – rough sleeping is at unprecedented high levels in Westminster and across London. Not only are more and more vulnerable people experiencing continued and escalating distress but more and more people are noticing. Accepting the brutal fact that things are going very badly wrong needs to be followed by exploring why, putting aside blame and looking ahead to solutions.

Whilst some rough sleepers may be considered as the architects of their own downfall, actually the biggest single reason for homelessness since 2014 is the end of an Assured Short Tenancy. Rents are rising and this sits alongside the freezing of local housing allowance since 2016. We are also seeing the impact of austerity on a wide range of health and social care services coupled with limited house building over decades. Having created the perfect conditions for the rises in rough sleeping we see, perhaps the biggest shock is that we are so surprised.

Keeping the faith

In facing the brutal facts, Jim Collin’s book also suggests that we keep the faith – and there are some positives. The UK tackled a serious rough sleeping problem from the mid-90s very successfully. We know it is possible. The government has invested in services through its rough sleeping strategy, launched in August. We can see in the Westminster figures that there is an increase in use of temporary accommodation to move people away from the streets as a first step. Numbers of people living on the streets over a long period of time have reduced in the borough despite the huge rise in new rough sleepers.

Complicated problems generally need a range of responses. We work hard with our partners in the statutory, private and voluntary sector to provide a comprehensive response to the issues. I believe that you should never waste a good crisis. Increasingly in Westminster, organisations are working together with energy and compassion to tackle the rise in rough sleeping. We have a clear, common purpose to work towards together.

Something we see as urgent in tackling the rising numbers of rough sleepers in Westminster is investment in a mobile, street-based and flexible treatment service to help people with mental health, drug and/ or alcohol problems to get the longer-term support they so badly need.

We would also like to see significant investment in more affordable accommodation, available across the country – so that people don’t resort to travelling to central London.

If you are shocked and concerned about rough sleeping in Westminster, there are lots of things you can do to help. You can volunteer with us, or with our colleagues at the Passage, West London Mission and St Mungo’s charities.

You can also fundraise or donate to us or other agencies working hard in Westminster to help rough sleepers move safely away from the streets. Please click here to find out more about how the money helps, or contact Westminster Homelessness Action Together (WHAT) .

Finally, if you’re concerned about a rough sleeper, please contact StreetLink online, on Twitter @Tell_StreetLink or by calling 0300 500 0914.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)’s latest rough sleeping statistics can be found here.
The latest CHAIN reports can be found here.