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Developing an overview of homelessness
The terms ‘homeless’ and ‘rough sleeper’ are frequently used interchangeably in public debate. Our work in this area has highlighted there is a risk of confusion due to multiple publications based on differing definitions across the UK. While rough sleepers are the most visible form of homelessness, there are other large, though less visible groups of individuals without somewhere permanent to live. There is also overlap and flow between these groups, and other individuals who are vulnerable to becoming homeless or to sleeping rough at any point in time.
The public value of homelessness and rough sleeping statistics lies in bringing together separate official UK measures of homelessness and rough sleeping, with other robust and insightful evidence and information on these topics, including newer case-level or longitudinal approaches, to better understand how people move in and out of homelessness or rough sleeping over time. This will enable the statistics produced by government to better reflect the lived experience of the individuals affected by homelessness and rough sleeping and improve understanding about those who are most at risk from entering these groups, as well as those able to move out of them.
We looked in detail at the public value of homelessness and rough sleeping statistics in 2017 as part of our wider review of the public value of housing and planning statistics in the UK. In February this year we published a two-year update report which welcomed the progress made since the original review. These included new developments and innovations and commitments from producers to enhance the public value of the information available.
Recent developments we noted include:
- the creation of a cross-government homelessness and rough sleeping statistics producers working group and joint work plan
- coordinated UK-wide homelessness statistics user engagement events
- a new UK homelessness article and an interactive guidance tool by the Government Statistical Service, to assist users to make informed decisions about the homelessness and rough sleeping data
- new experimental homelessness statistics for Northern Ireland, produced by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency
- new experimental Homeless deaths statistics for England and Wales produced by the Office for National Statistics
- new experimental statistics on Homelessness deaths in Scotland, produced by National Records of Scotland
- a Welsh Government feasibility study into collecting individual, case-level homelessness data.
Statistics on homelessness and rough sleeping have long been characterised by development and innovation to better understand the extent and characteristics of these hard to measure populations. As such, the existing homelessness official statistics for England, Northern Ireland, and some of those for Scotland, are experimental in nature, while those for Wales have also undergone significant redevelopment in line with changes in legislation.
Despite the significant developments mentioned above, key information gaps still remain in the current landscape. This includes the need for better UK data on the circumstances of the homeless and rough sleepers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Current issues arising from COVID-19
COVID-19 has placed a renewed focus on understanding the experiences of the homeless and rough sleepers, due to the increased risks that they face from being unable to isolate safely. This has led to unprecedented actions by governments across the UK to make emergency accommodation available.
New information is now being collected by UK councils on the numbers of rough sleepers, and those at risk of rough sleeping, who have been provided with emergency accommodation since the start of the pandemic. These actions have resulted in new policy questions, such as whether these individuals will become settled in permanent accommodation or return to homelessness or rough sleeping in future. We encourage UK statisticians and analysts to work together to develop these new data sources with urgency, as part of their wider efforts to more clearly illustrate the overall UK homelessness and rough sleeping picture.
We also recognise that the pandemic is creating challenges for the production of the existing official statistics in this area, and that statisticians are working to assure themselves that source data is of suitable quality to publish. We welcome producers’ commitments to continue the publication of statistics on homelessness and rough sleeping despite these challenges, given their importance for understanding the circumstances of some of society’s most vulnerable people, both during the pandemic and beyond.
Rough sleeping statistics
It is notoriously difficult to produce accurate statistics on rough sleepers given the hidden nature of rough sleeping. As such, the established rough sleeping official statistics for England and Wales are limited in detail, as they only attempt to record accurately those people seen or thought to be sleeping rough, over a very short time period. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of weight is placed on these statistics in public debate.
There are currently no national rough sleeping estimates for Scotland or Northern Ireland. However, we understand that work is underway by Scottish Government to develop new street homelessness statistics. We see this development work as essential for helping to inform a fuller understanding of the overall homelessness and rough sleeping picture.
For the official national rough sleeping statistics that do exist, we have previously expressed concerns about potential risks to their quality and comparability. In particular, we reported concerns about the comparability of the rough sleeping snapshot statistics for England, following the introduction of Rough Sleeping Initiative funding for many English local authorities in 2018.
Given this, our recent regulatory work includes compliance checks of the official rough sleeping statistics for England and Wales. Our published findings highlight many positive features which demonstrate the quality and value of the statistics. These include, for example, positively recognising the work done by Ministry for Housing and Local Government (MHCLG) analysts to address our previous concerns around ensuring the comparability of statistics over time. However, we also identified the potential for further improvement, such as producing analyses based on a wider range of sources to more fully convey the lived experience of rough sleepers; and engaging with a broader range of users about how the statistics might be further improved.
In the context of COVID-19, further work needs to be undertaken to establish whether the current rough sleeping estimation methods used in England and Wales are suitable and are able to produce statistics that are sufficiently robust and relevant for the uses that will need to be made of them in the coming months and years. We therefore welcome plans by MHCLG and Welsh Government to keep the current methods under review and to draw on additional approaches and information sources to produce enhanced statistical insights for this population. We trust that statisticians will share new methods, expertise and emerging data sources with other UK producers going forwards, to help provide insights and promote further innovation, so that the current and future circumstances of some of the most vulnerable people in society are better understood.
In conclusion, only with a fuller picture, created by drawing on a range of robust sources of statistics and further evidence will governments, charities and other key decision makers be able to fully support homeless people, and help them find a way out of the extremely difficult circumstances that they face.