The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few months ago, with both immediate and long-lasting impacts on our economic structures and social behaviours. From the start we highlighted that groups facing economic and social disadvantages were more likely to be affected by COVID-19.
The Government took decisive and unprecedented actions to house over 15,000 people experiencing street homelessness across England who were reallocated to hotels and other types of emergency accommodation. This concerted effort drastically reduced long-term rough sleeping and contributed to contain the number of infections and deaths among those sleeping rough (only 16 according to a recent ONS release). Newly released data on street homelessness for Greater London confirms this, revealing that the number of those with longer histories of homelessness (deemed to be living on the streets) decreased by about 30%: 264 people were recorded in April-June 2020 down from 393 people in April–June 2019.
However, a new challenge awaits: the data also revealed a steep increase in the total number of people experiencing street homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between April and June 2020, 4,227 people were recorded as sleeping rough in London - a +33% increase compared to the same period in 2019 and +14.5% compared to January – March 2020. Significantly, this is driven by people who are new to the streets and have considerably lower support needs than previous cohorts which may call for a different response. A large proportion of these have no recourse to public funds.
In the rest of this blog, we explore what the data says about this new group of people experiencing street homelessness.
First, there is a clear change in the geographical distribution of people experiencing homelessness: there was a shift away from high concentration areas like Westminster and City of London. Although Westminster remains the borough with the highest number of people experiencing street homelessness in the capital, and City of London has also one of the highest concentrations, there were significant drops in the number of people experiencing street homelessness in both areas (-20% in the City compared to both the previous quarter and to last year, and -15% in Westminster compared to the previous quarter and -20% to last year).
In turn there seems to be a marked shift compared to other Inner London boroughs where the numbers increased substantially such as Islington (172 in 2020, +146% increase) and Hammersmith and Fulham (103 in 2020, +94% increase); but more importantly, street homelessness is becoming more common in Outer London, where 1543 people experiencing street homelessness were identified (+75%) – this now represents 37 out of 100 people experiencing street homelessness in London compared to 28 out of 100 over the same period last year. The two maps below clearly illustrate how the numbers of people experiencing street homelessness are more sprawled throughout London in 2020.
The hike in numbers in Outer London boroughs was particularly substantial in Ealing (267 street homeless in April – June 2020, +72% increase compared to the same quarter last year), which is now the second borough with the highest number of people experiencing street homelessness behind Westminster. In Haringey, the numbers of people experiencing street homelessness doubled (164 in 2020, +100% increase).
Besides the increase in overall numbers and the changes in spatial dynamics, there are four other things leaders working to end homelessness across London will want to pay close attention to:
1. Most of the increase in street homelessness is driven by people who are new to the streets: 2,680 people in April - June 2020 - a +77% increase compared to the 1,513 people in April - June 2019. People new to the streets are now the largest group of street homeless in Greater London: 63 out of 100 people seen rough sleeping were new to the streets in the last CHAIN release compared to 50 out 100 in the previous quarter and 48 out of 100 last year. In turn, the number of those with longer histories of homelessness (deemed to be living on the streets) decreased by about 30%: 264 people were recorded in April-June 2020 from 393 people in April–June 2019.
This trend is particularly apparent in Outer London boroughs where 3 out of 100 people experiencing street homelessness were deemed as living on the streets in April - June 2020 compared to 8 out of 100 in the same period last year. A similar pattern emerged in areas such as Westminster (10 out of 100 deemed as living on the streets in April - June 2020 compared to 18 out 100 in the same period last year, a -45% decrease), but it is not necessarily the case across all London Boroughs: there were increases in the number of people experiencing homelessness longer-term in Haringey, Newham, Brent and Ealing.
2. This group of people experiencing street homelessness have considerably lower support needs than previous cohorts: the proportion of people with neither alcohol, drugs nor mental health support needs is twice as high as last year. Out of 100 people, 34 had none of these needs in April – June 2020 compared to only 17 people out of 100 in April – June 2019.
This is true in every borough and changes are particularly important in boroughs where people experiencing street homelessness had very high needs in April - June 2019. The share of people experiencing street homelessness with neither alcohol, drugs nor mental health support needs quadrupled in Brent to 39 out of 100 in April - June 2020 compared to 9 out of 100 in the same period last year and it approximately tripled in the City of London (to 23 out of 100 compared to 7 out of 100), Southwark (to 29 out of 100 compared to 9 out of 100) and Camden (to 24 out of 100 compared to 8 out of 100).
This change is mostly due to those who are new to the streets having considerably lower support needs than people with longer experiences of homelessness: 45 out of 100 new people rough sleeping had no support needs in comparison to 17 out of 100 long-term homeless people experiencing homelessness longer-term(personal communication from CHAIN). Among this cohort, there were also slightly fewer people with experiences of prison (30 out of 100 people in 2020 vs 37 out of 100 in 2019) or social care (8 out of 100 in 2020 vs 11 out of 100 in 2019).
3. The share of people with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) almost doubled to about 20 people out of 100 compared to about 11 out 100 in the same period last year. However, the increase in people with NRPF (about +450 people compared to the same period last year) does not account for the total increase in the number of street homeleness (+ 1055 people). A large fraction of those who have NRPF are new to the streets: NRFP concerns 26 out of 100 new people experiencing street homelessness compared to 15 out of 100 people with longer histories of homelessness (CHAIN personal communication).
The shift in the country of origin is driven by an increase of people with African and Asian origins, paired with a reduction in the share of Central and Eastern Europeans. The majority of people who are street homeless are still UK nationals and that proportion is stable (51 people out of 100 people, compared to 48 out of 100 over the same period last year).
4. The proportion of Black people climbed significantly among people experiencing street homelessness in Greater London: In April – June 2020, almost 24 out of 100 people reported as street homeless were black, a sharp increase in comparison to April–June 2019 when the proportion was close to that of the general population (14 out of 100 street homeless were black, close to 13 out of 100 Black people among Greater London inhabitants in the 2011 Census). Gypsy/Romany/Irish Travellers are also over-represented but the proportion decreased to about 3 out of 100 people experiencing street homelessness in April-June 2020 from about 6 out of 100 people seen sleeping rough in the same period last year (compared to less than 1 out of 100 in the general Greater London population in 2011).
The COVID-19 pandemic offered an opportunity to reduce long-term street homelessness that was cemented by the Government’s decisive actions and reflected in the reduction of people deemed to be living on the streets revealed by the latest CHAIN data.
The new realities outlined above highlight the imperative to focus even greater attention on the group of people who are new to the streets, and with considerably lower support needs than previous cohorts. And also on an increasingly larger group facing a different challenge: having no recourse to public funds. It is also paramount to better understand the role of intersectionality and the different experiences of ethnic minorities and how they have been differentially affected by COVID-19 and also the economic and social fallout of the crisis.
We will continue to actively monitor these trends and dig deeper into the insights that data can offer to help design a better policy response to these evolving challenges.
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