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May 31, 2024

Can We Really End Rough Sleeping?

Mick Clarke

In December 2019, the Conservative Party Manifesto committed to ending “the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament”. 

However, in the very same year  this target was due to be achieved, the number of people who are rough sleeping is rising at a rate not seen in decades. London has recorded the largest increase anywhere in the UK, with a 32% rise on the previous period. More than half are sleeping rough for the first time, a third of whom are 35-years-old or younger. 

What we are seeing therefore, is a crisis happening on our streets right now.  

It must be emphasised that this rise is in no way due to an absence of people who are working incredibly hard. Every day, colleagues in the charity sector together with officials from local and regional government and the civil service are doing their best to both prevent and end street homelessness.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the narrative around street homelessness was reframed as a public health emergency and the Everyone In scheme saw thousands of people moved safely off the streets and into accommodation. However, post-pandemic we are, once again, seeing numbers of people sleeping on our streets that, in t twenty-first century Britain, is simply not acceptable. 

We need to take radical and strategic action if we are to have any chance of moving towards a solution where street homelessness is something we can prevent, rather than simply manage. 

So, what would be the main foundations of such a strategy? I believe there should be three core pillars: evidence and prevention; leadership; and a radical moment of change in housing supply.

Evidence and Prevention

At The Passage, evidence informs everything that we do. It is often suggested that the UK should replicate models of best practice from other countries about how to end homelessness - Finland is often cited as a positive example. Whilst this may have merit, we also have a wealth of experience and innovation in this country with many projects and initiatives successfully preventing homelessness. 

Our new No Night Out scheme demonstrated that, since it was launched, 196 people who were about to spend their first night on the streets were prevented from doing so through our intervention. Furthermore, when we reviewed London’s CHAIN database (which captures every contact made by the commissioned street outreach teams across London), 13 needed further support, with only 5 of the 196 registering a street contact; 97% have sustained their own accommodation. 

This government has invested over £2 billion towards tackling homelessness and there are many organisations doing great work which is having a major impact. However, to create lasting, systemic change, we need an evidence-led strategy, informed by a comprehensive evaluation of what truly has a positive and sustainable impact. Investment should be made in rolling out tried and tested initiatives that are based on what works and demonstrate measurable and tangible results. 


We need strong and tangible leadership to effectively address homelessness in England. 

It is now over 25 years since the Rough Sleeping Unit was established, which reduced rough sleeping by two thirds and came very close to ending rough sleeping. One of the hallmarks of that period was leadership; in Louise Casey (Baroness Casey of Blackstock) and her team there was clear responsibility and accountability for meeting targets. Most notably, Baroness Casey reported directly to the Prime Minister, giving access to the levers of power that are critical to achieving tangible change.

In London today, where we have the highest levels of rough sleeping, it is unclear who is ultimately leading. Key bodies include the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority, London Councils, 32 London Boroughs, the City of London, Sub-Regions, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and several other government bodies who contribute to the discussion. All work incredibly hard to tackle rough sleeping, but if we are to have any real impact in our capital city, we need a truly devolved pan-London power that gives absolute leadership, accountability and coordination on this issue. 

Whilst it is immensely welcome to see the commitment from the current Mayor of London to end rough sleeping by 2030, this is simply not possible without the devolution of power and clear, ultimate responsibility and accountability for delivery and strategy.

We also need a commitment from central government to ensure that the necessary reporting structures and systems are in place giving the same access to the levers of power as were proven to work before.

A radical moment of change in housing supply

At The Passage we believe everyone deserves a place to call home. However, for decades a political ping pong match has been taking place around social and affordable housing, with arguments playing out during each 5-year life cycle of whichever party is in office. 

We need a truly radical moment of change to address the crisis in housing supply that lifts it above the political fray, and one that also provides wrap-around services in health and social care. I suggest that it is time for another Beveridge Report moment, which during the midst of World War II, set out the basis for post war reform and laid the foundations for the welfare state including the creation of the NHS.      

At the centre of the report was the rallying call that ‘social progress’ should not be hindered by ‘sectional interests’.

Int twenty-first century Britain today, I believe people care less about political point scoring and more about actually getting stuff done and making things work. They want to see the ‘sectional interests’ (political point scoring) set aside to achieve real social progress’ by enabling access to safe and adequate housing.

Whoever wins the next general election will be faced with a simple choice; more of the same, or radical change. 

Imagine the impact of seizing a moment where the fundamental right to decent housing outranks political argument; where a radical new state-owned house building programme is introduced across England to provide homes for those who need them most. 

This approach will take genuine political courage and it will not be achieved overnight – it will take a generation. But if we are to truly end the homelessness crisis we need to start somewhere. So why not be radical? And why not start now? 

Mick Clarke is CEO of The Passage


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