Charities warn homelessness will rise further as local authority and housing benefit cuts take effect
The number of people sleeping rough in England has grown by more than a fifth in the past year, underlining fears that spending cuts and recession are driving up levels of homelessness.
Charities warned that the latest official figures were “just the tip of the iceberg” and that rough sleeping was likely to become more prevalent as widespread local authority cuts to housing support services and housing benefits took effect.
The statistics, released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, show increases in the number of rough sleepers in eight out of nine English regions. Overall, 2,181 people were recorded as sleeping rough on any one night in England in autumn 2011 – up from 1,768 the year before.
The data shows rough sleeping is most concentrated in London, the south-east and south-west – although the biggest year-on-year increases came in the east Midlands (55%), and the north-west (40%). Only the north-east saw a fall in rough sleeping, down by a third over the past 12 months.
The housing minister Grant Shapps said roughly half of the 446 rough sleepers in London were non-UK nationals, “so anyone heading here with tales of Dick Whittington in their head needs to realise that the streets of London and our other cities aren’t paved with gold”. He encouraged “those arriving from beyond our shores to try and carve out a future in England should come with a thought-through plan to avoid the risk of sleeping on the streets”.
But charities accused Shapps of attempting to divert attention from more serious underlying problems. Leslie Morphy, the chief executive of Crisis, said: “This rise in the number of people facing the horrors of rough sleeping is truly worrying and must be a wake-up call. Our very real fear is this is just the tip of the iceberg and the worst is yet to come.”
Matt Harrison, interim chief executive of Homeless Link, which represents 500 homelessness charities, called the rise “depressing but not unexpected”.
“For some time, our members have been reporting that more people are seeking help and many are struggling to meet demand. This comes at a time when reduced funding has already hit services and further cuts are expected this year. Our research indicates that there are now fewer projects, fewer beds and more of our members are turning people away because they are full.”
A Homeless Link survey due to be published next month will show that more than half of all homelessness services have been hit by budget cuts, leading to closures of hostels and bed spaces. More than half of respondents say they have been told by councils to expect further cuts.
Rough sleeping counts are single-night snapshots of the number of people sleeping rough in local authority areas carried out every October.
A separate count of rough sleeping in London, called the Chain database and run by the Broadway charity, recorded 3,975 rough sleepers in London over 2010-11.
Howard Sinclair, the chief executive of Broadway, said: “Do I think that the figures will get worse? Yes, I think this is the start. As people get into debt, as the benefit changes take effect, as people get evicted, this problem will become more acute.
“Yes, the government has kept the homelessness grant. But most prevention and support services are funded out of Supporting People budgets, which have been cut by 20% by local authorities. Councils have cut these services, and the government has done nothing to stop them.”