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February 28, 2023

Using data to guide and track work to end rough sleeping

Rob Anderson

Rough sleeping is a complex issue. While every experience of rough sleeping is unique, some patterns of street homelessness are very different to others. Some people spend a single night out, others experience harmful long-term rough sleeping and many have returned to rough sleeping after a period away. 

Until now, data to track rough sleeping in England has come from the annual rough sleeping ‘snapshot’, which uses an annual street count to estimate the number of people sleeping out on a single night each autumn.

While the snapshot is helpful in pointing out trends over time, the single night count cannot adequately capture the complexity of patterns of rough sleeping. This means we lack the insight needed to systematically ensure that rough sleeping is prevented wherever possible or, if it does occur, ensure that is rare, brief and non-recurring.

This is why over the past year we have been working with the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), and a group pioneering local areas across England, to co-create and design a new data-driven approach that will give fresh insights into the nature of rough sleeping in each area of England and help local leaders drive progress towards ending it. 

The overall aim for this work, set out in the government’s recent rough sleeping strategy, Ending Rough Sleeping For Good, is to introduce a new national data-led approach to measure progress towards ending rough sleeping, so that every area understands what is needed, track the progress they are making and be held accountable locally.

We call the group of local areas that we have worked with to co-produce and pilot this approach the ‘Early Adopters’. They are London Councils and the Greater London Authority; Greater Manchester Combined Authority; West Midlands Combined Authority; Newcastle City Council; and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council. 

Our work with these Early Adopters is focused on ending rough sleeping, which is the commitment of the UK Government for England. But the principles behind this approach apply to all forms of homelessness and our ambition is to work with local partners and governments to support its adoption in all nations of the UK.

In Scotland, where the government’s strategy seeks to end all homelessness, our local authority partners thus far have been Aberdeen, Dundee and Fife. 

Aberdeen City Council, for instance, has seen a 40% fall between 2011 and 2021 in the number of households assessed as homeless, from 2,033 households to 1,220. But it has used the framework to focus on reducing the length of time for which people experience homelessness, with a target to shorten its average assessment and support period to 14 days and to cut the average duration of homelessness from 164 days to 50 days by 2024, as part of its rapid rehousing transition plan.   

In Wales the government’s high level action plan for the period 2021-26 has adopted the approach of our framework with a strategy to make all forms of homelessness ‘rare, brief and unrepeated’, building on the new approaches and collaboration between agencies established during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

We know that better data will not on its own solve rough sleeping let alone other forms of homelessness, whether in England or any nation in the UK. 

Learning about what works

But our work with the Early Adopter local areas in England means that, by using more fine-grained data, we can learn more about prevention, about people’s different journeys into and experiences of rough sleeping, and about how the system can help people move out of rough sleeping.

Our work together has enabled us to develop five data points or indicators that all local authorities in England will from now be expected to record.

To track whether rough sleeping in their area is being prevented, this means recording the number of new people sleeping rough. If prevention work is effective this number should fall over time. 

And it means recording separately the number of people sleeping rough after being discharged from an institution, such after leaving prison, hospital or local authority care. Evidence shows that this transition carries a much higher risk of homelessness and so ensuring that people leaving institutions are supported into stable accommodation is critical to prevention, and again this figure should fall over time.

To ensure that rough sleeping is rare, local authorities should continue to count the total number of people sleeping out in their area. Their aim should be to reduce this to zero over time, or as close to zero as possible.

To make episodes of street homelessness brief, councils should record the number of people experiencing multiple or sustained periods of rough sleeping. Reducing this figure should be a priority given the high levels of harm associated with long-term street homelessness.

And for rough sleeping to be non-recurring, they should record the number of people locally who return to rough sleeping after a period away from the streets. Again, this shold fall over time if both prevention work and pathways to support people off the streets into stable housing are working effectively.   

There are other data points that some local authorities may choose to record, in addition to these core indicators, if these help to track and understand patterns of rough sleeping that are particular to their area.   

Data takes time to collect and care must be taken to record data accurately and consistently. When done well, however, our experience with the Early Adopter areas has shown that carefully chosen and well designed data systems can have a rapid and consistent impact in improving performance.

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