Londonist Investigates: Causes Of Rough Sleeping

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 90 months ago
Londonist Investigates: Causes Of Rough Sleeping

Photo by Steve Reed from the Londonist Flickr pool

The number of people seen rough sleeping in London has been rising — but then, it's been rising since at least 2004. There seems to be two distinct, vocal camps arguing about the reasons behind recent rises: one says government cuts, the other says immigration. The London Assembly has just released a report looking at support for homeless people which goes into more detail, particularly when it comes to long term support services, with recommendations for the Mayor's office. But we've also had a dig through the figures, been out with an outreach team around the City and spoken to outreach services in Southwark to find out more.

Mental Health, Alcohol and Drugs

46%* of those seen rough sleeping in London during 2013/14 had some kind of mental health issue; 43%* had problems with alcohol and 31%* had problems with drugs. There's obviously some crossover, but around three-quarters of all rough sleepers had some kind of support need.

When we spent some time checking on rough sleepers around the St Paul's area with Liz, an outreach worker, she explained the vicious cycle some rough sleepers with mental health difficulties get trapped in: outreach teams can't force help on them until they get so bad they need to be sectioned, the former rough sleeper then moves through the system, gets help, support and medication if needed, and finally arrives at some kind of long term accommodation which can feel lonely and isolated. They then sometimes drop back onto the streets, where they decline until being sectioned again. Most of the rough sleepers we came into contact with had some form of mental health support need.

Eammon at Southwark told us there's recently been a reduction in the number of hostel beds for people with complex needs. Larger 'warehouse' style hostels are closing, the idea being they'll be replaced with smaller places where people can get more personalised help, but that hasn't happened quite yet.

People move on faster from smaller hostels, but the question then becomes: where to? Waiting lists for social housing are long, and not all landlords in the private sector will work with former rough sleepers. Some will accept no deposit but then the rent is high. Other, more profiteering, landlords have seen changes to housing benefit caps and split up properties into smaller, individual 'flats' that Eammon described as barely bigger than the meeting room we were in (about the width of a double bed) in order to milk the system (less risk of arrears than on larger properties, cram 'em in on 'government set' rates instead).

It's hardly any wonder that some former rough sleepers, after working so hard to reach a level of independence, take a look at their surroundings and decide it's not worth it. The transition from hostel to private housing is a difficult one anyway — going from a place with lots of company and things happening to being alone can be isolating, especially if the new housing is in an unfamiliar area. St Mungo's Broadway has a Peer Advice Link service to help with the change.

Eviction and Housing Myths

"It all comes back to housing," says Eammon. Not only is the quality of some private rented sector accommodation appalling, but people ending up on the street in 2013/14 after being evicted was nearly 30%*. That's up around 5% from 2012/13. The number being evicted for arrears is also increasing: 7.4% in 2013/14 over 1% in 2012/13. London's rough sleepers aren't necessarily from transient populations either: 56%* of new rough sleepers had come from long term accommodation (i.e., private rented, social or owner occupied).

However, outreach workers aren't blaming government cuts. Benefit changes and caps are resulting in "a trickle" rather than a flood of people rough sleeping, says Eammon. But they are expecting to see more people on the streets as changes take hold. (Right now, it's the number of people in temporary accommodation that's shooting up.) His feeling from being on the ground is that more people are dropping out of independent living (the figures record a 9% rise in rough sleepers returning after a gap of at least a year), presumably because of a lack of long term support.

Eammon says that much of outreach work is dispelling housing myths. One abiding fallacy is that if someone sleeps rough in a particular area for a period of time, they develop a 'local connection' and the council is obliged to help house them. That's simply not true, yet the rumour is still being passed on and leads to some people deliberately sleeping rough to try and jump the queue.

Other myths relate to the supposed ease with which immigrants can claim benefits; recent changes already in place mean European Economic Area (EEA) immigrants have to be in the UK for three months before they're able to claim Jobseeker's Allowance, and housing benefit is no longer available to new EEA jobseekers. Which brings us to...


The national mix of people sleeping rough has changed over the last decade. In 2004/5, 82%* of rough sleepers were from the UK. In 2013/14, that's down to 46.1%*. 30.8%* now originally hail from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), with Romanians currently the top nationality (until recently it was Poles).

Eammon estimates about 45% of the rough sleepers in Southwark are from the CEE; they've arrived with poor information about the work or housing situation, but because they are often ready for work they are relatively easy to deal with. Outreach worker caseloads are dominated by those with complex needs, which these immigrants don't have, so 45% of Southwark's resources aren't spent on immigrants.

The vast majority of non-UK nationals rough sleeping in London last year were also here legally. Just 129 of the 2,296 immigration statuses recorded were for people who didn't have a right to be in the country.


Back in October, we interviewed the director of No Second Night Out (NSNO), Petra Salva, who explained some of the statistical reasons behind the 2011/2012 increase. It's partly down to a change in practice, she said; NSNO introduced better reporting and response, so people who'd previously slipped through the cracks were picked up and registered.

Both Southwark and City teams said their own practices hadn't needed to change, but suggested some of the outer boroughs may have had to adapt. Changes came into effect between 2011 and 2012 and — we should stress we haven't contacted all these teams to see if something else was going on — boroughs like Barnet, Brent, Greenwich, Croydon and Redbridge start to record anywhere between an extra 30-150 rough sleepers over their previous maximum highs.

Armed Forces

Something else that is often blamed for exacerbating rough sleeping is the experience of people leaving the armed forces. Around 10%* of those recorded in London have an armed forces background (a number that's been fairly steady for several years) but it's important to note a few things. Firstly: the rough sleeper hasn't necessarily just been discharged, it means they've had experience with the armed forces at some point in their life. Secondly: the majority of those with armed forces backgrounds are from Central and Eastern Europe, where many countries only recently abolished compulsory military service.

Eammon says what we should be looking at is the number of rough sleepers with experience of prison (33%*) or the care system (9%*); again suggesting failures of long term support.


Literacy and numeracy also play big roles when it comes to rough sleeping. St Mungo's Broadway looked at 139 of its clients (not necessarily all in London) and found 51% weren't literate enough and 55% weren't numerate enough to get a grade G at GCSE. But specialist homelessness charities realise that education is about more than the three Rs; Crisis runs lessons in things like bike maintenance and yoga, and its summer school is currently teaching classes on ballroom dancing and blogging. St Mungo's Broadway's Recovery College encourages clients to learn alongside staff and members of the public, to feel like students rather than people in a programme. It's about allowing individuals to find the right approach for them, to build confidence and recognise abilities they might not have realised they had — again, we're talking about long term care and addressing some of the underlying reasons why some people end up rough sleeping in the first place.

Final Word

It's important to note that the vast majority of people sleeping rough in London aren't permanent fixtures. Just 164 people were seen on the streets in all four quarters of 2013/14 — far, far more are only seen in one period, meaning they get the help they need. This doesn't negate any of the reasons for why people end up there, but hopefully it makes the overall figures slightly less horrifying.

We'd like to give the last thought to Eammon. "There will always be people on the streets because there will always be people who can't cope." So we'd better make sure we have the right services in place to help when this is the case.

* These numbers are based on those who had the relevant information recorded, so isn't necessarily reflective of all rough sleepers seen.

Last Updated 31 July 2014