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Homelessness: Rough Sleepers

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 31 March 2009


Asked By

My Lords, as part of the new rough sleeping strategy, No One Left Out, we are bringing in changes that will clarify the scope of the count and enable more in-depth reporting of the level and nature of need in different areas.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many people who work in the homelessness sector struggle to reconcile government figures with what they see on the streets, and that one reason for this is the way in which they are instructed to count? For example, someone must be bedded down in the same place for two consecutive nights, and counters are forbidden from going into dark and secluded places, which is exactly where rough sleepers tend to hide. Would it not be better if the emphasis went on finding and helping them instead of counting them?

My Lords, I certainly agree that the emphasis must be on finding and helping them, which is exactly what we are doing. The counts might not capture all those who sleep rough, but because the methodology has been applied consistently from area to area and year on year, it is the most accurate measure of the relative scale of the problem and the change over time. Those are not my words; they are those of the National Audit Office. Its figures show that, in 1998, 1,850 people were sleeping rough and that, in June 2008, there were 483. That is significant progress. It is recognised across the voluntary sector, but it is only a platform for our ambition to get rid of rough sleeping by 2012.

My Lords, I am sure that we all appreciate the work done by voluntary organisations in helping rough sleepers, but in this economic recession what additional resources will the Government give to these organisations to help them to meet the needs of what is likely to be a larger number of people who, because of repossessions and so on, will find themselves on the streets?

My Lords, I had the privilege on Friday of visiting Shelter’s advice centre in Chatham, where I saw the excellent work that Shelter and other voluntary agencies are doing. The noble Lord is quite right. We are aware that what is happening in the economy is likely to lead to a loss of jobs and a loss of homes, which is why we brought forward the mortgage rescue package of £200 million, the mortgage support packages, which are led by lenders, and so on. We have also increased the money going into advice for these shelters, which are very grateful for that. When I talk about our ambition to get rid of rough sleeping by 2012, I should say that in addition to refining the count, we are setting up a streets audit to look at the exact individual help that rough sleepers will need—they are all very different—and how we can best offer that.

My Lords, does the Minister keep separate figures for the number of young people under the age of 25 who have left public care and are rough sleepers? Is she doing all she can to improve access to appropriate, good-quality supported accommodation for young people leaving care?

My Lords, we do not have separate figures, but I can tell the noble Earl—I know he has a real interest in this issue—that one of our cross-cutting targets, PSA 16, has identified children who are coming out of care and who we know make up a large proportion of people on the streets. Such people have multiple problems, including mental health problems and addiction problems, and we have identified them as a particular target in the provision of housing. We find that these young people turn up regularly in places such as the Passage in London, and we really do have a care for them.

My Lords, what is the position at the moment in central London? While local authorities in central London always felt that they should do what they could to help people, they found that the situation in some areas was very frightening for tourists, so they tried to find ways of helping that would relieve the tourist situation as well.

My Lords, it is true that London has roughly half the country’s rough sleepers. Part of the challenge is to stop people coming to London in the first place, which is why we are investing £200 million in homelessness prevention services across the country. Westminster has a particularly acute problem because it is in a way the depot for the A10 groups of people coming from eastern Europe. That is why we have put additional resources into Westminster to help, for example, people reconnect to services in their home countries, and so on. Westminster has approximately 1,800 rough sleepers on the streets each year. It is a serious problem, which is why it needs more resources.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that on the frontline of work with rough sleepers and those experiencing homelessness are a lot of small voluntary organisations run and staffed by volunteers? Does she accept that many of these are reporting to people like me a growing problem in the present climate? What resources and help can they turn to at this time of growing difficulty in this field?

My Lords, the small voluntary organisations are critical in identifying people on the streets. They do most of the outreach work and most of the counting for us. As I said, we have put more funding into advice services. In addition, our third-sector strategy is about enabling voluntary organisations and local authorities to commission the right services for the right length of time so that we can get proper delivery and use the third sector in the most effective way possible.

My Lords, do Her Majesty’s Government know how many rough sleepers are mentally ill or suffering from learning difficulties? What special provisions are made for them?

My Lords, there is no doubt that many of the people who do not access formal health and welfare services have mental health difficulties and by definition find themselves on the streets. Our cross-cutting strategy, PSA 16, also focuses help with accommodation precisely on those with mental health problems. One of the problems is that we do not have a database or sufficient evidence to know how many people are in that group, but we are engaged in that task.