We’ve all heard about how rising levels of rough sleeping in recent years. But how do we actually know how many people are sleeping on the street?
There are two official ways of finding out how many people are sleeping on London’s streets: the annual count undertaken by each borough one night per year, and through CHAIN (Combined Homelessness and Information Network), the London-wide database. Outreach teams, No Second Night Out, and commissioned homelessness providers all use and contribute to CHAIN. It supports multi-agency work and shapes services, policy and strategy, and so it is hugely important to look at who is being counted in or, as we suspect with 16-25 year olds, missed out.
75% missing in the formal statistics?
According to CHAIN, 615 16-25 year olds were seen to be sleeping on the streets in London in the financial year 2017-18. In the same period at NHYC we supported 320 young people who told us they were or had been sleeping rough. 202 of these had never used our services before and reported to be sleeping rough when first accessing the centre.
We cross referenced our database against CHAIN and found that only around a quarter of these young people appear in the official rough sleeping figures. In other words, about 75% have not been counted through the official route. So what does this mean?
We can’t draw any big conclusions. Our figures are based on different systems of recording than CHAIN, for instance, and we use different methods of confirming people sleep on the street. But the 75% difference is significant enough to indicate that young people are under-represented in the formal figures, and that we need to get a better understanding why they currently are not.
Who is represented?
The data also helps us to specify what groups of people are most likely to experience rough sleeping. Looking again at our own 2018 numbers, we know that 80% were male, 22% were EU citizens, 24% had an offending history, 29% had had social service support currently or in the past, and 12% had refugee status.
These figures are not too unfamiliar, and reflect what we know about some of the patterns and causes of rough sleeping (such as having to leave Home Office accommodation when receiving refugee status, becoming homeless on release from prison, and high prevalence of care leavers). We however also found that two thirds of the young people who were or had been sleeping rough were of black or ethnic minority background; significantly more in the overall rough sleeping population based on CHAIN data. This type of gap again seems to emphasise the need to get a better grasp of what is happening with and for young people ending up sleeping out on the streets.
Local and national government have responded to significant increases in street homelessness with plans and funding streams aimed at reducing the number of people who have absolutely nowhere else to go or sleep.
Often the underlying assumption seems to be that these strategies and services will work for all age groups alike. The government’s Rough Sleeping Strategy for instance makes little mention of young people and proposes just two strategic approaches specifically targeted to address rough sleeping amongst the under-25s: one for care leavers and one for young people who are not in employment, education or training. Both are needed and both are welcome, but based on our data comparison we wonder if it will be enough.
Given that evidence and data have triggered and informed such plans, the likelihood of under-representation of 16-25 year olds in that evidence, and a possible data blind spot for over-representation of certain groups within this demographic, young people are at risk of being counted out. We need to start looking how to count them in.
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