Last week was a busy one in the homelessness sector. Our Head of Policy, Campaigns and Research, Beatrice Orchard rounds up, and reflects on, the key moments. 

The official rough sleeping statistics for England were published last week. They show a 37% reduction in the number of people sleeping rough on a single night, falling from 4,266 in autumn 2019 to 2,688 in autumn 2020. This is the lowest figure since 2013.

The statistics also show just what can be achieved with a concerted effort and strong partnership working to help people rebuild their lives away from the streets, which is exactly what happened under the ‘Everyone In’ initiative.

As usual there was much debate and discussion about the extent to which this ‘nightly snapshot’ can ever tell us about the true scale of rough sleeping across the country.

The Everyone In initiative has provided safe, emergency accommodation and ongoing support for those sleeping rough, as well as others at risk of doing so. At the latest count 37,430 have been helped since March last year, a tremendous achievement and an unprecedented opportunity to support thousands of people to recover from homelessness.

What the official rough sleeping statistics do provide is a consistent measure, independently verified by Homeless Link, which can be used to help review progress on ending rough sleeping. And it was extremely welcome to see both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Housing commit once again to achieving this goal.

As well as praising the efforts of everyone involved in securing the reduction in rough sleeping during the past year, including councils, outreach workers, volunteers and civil servants, the Government also took the opportunity to say a bit more about its future Rough Sleeping Strategy.

We heard Housing First ‘was integral to that mission’ following calls from the Centre for Social Justice, St Mungo’s and others for a significant expansion of the approach.

Equally, the Housing Secretary told Parliament that the ‘marriage of health and housing’ would be at the heart of the Government’s strategy.

The pandemic has served as another reminder that homelessness and health are inextricably linked. Recent research by St Mungo’s found almost one in four (24%) of our clients has a health condition which put them at serious risk from Covid-19, with illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and severe respiratory conditions being common.

The research also found that joined-up working between health and homelessness services has been a key factor in the success of Everyone In. Ministers have agreed and committed to ‘fortify those partnerships between local homelessness and health services, and between central and local government and the NHS.’

We stand ready to work with the Government to deliver on the recommendations in our Housing and Health report to turn this commitment into a reality.

Finally, there was also the hint that the Government’s strategy would also be about modernising the approach to street homelessness and finally repealing the 1824 Vagrancy Act which criminalises rough sleeping.

The Government’s review of the act is still to be published, but the Housing Secretary has now agreed publicly with MPs and homelessness charities that the ‘antiquated’ act should be repealed.

St Mungo’s has long advocated for an end to the Vagrancy Act. Its very existence runs against modern understandings of homelessness and often drives people sleeping rough further from the support they need.

A renewed strategy and a modern day approach, which embeds the lessons from the pandemic, is exactly what is needed. With continued political will, and close partnership working, we can make much more progress on the journey to ending rough sleeping for good.