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Good data won’t end homelessness but it’s a key part of the solution

A long-awaited report by the body responsible for safeguarding the quality of official statistics has concluded that the way in which homelessness data is currently collected and reported by Government requires significant improvement. And this amidst growing concern that official statistics misrepresent the true scale of the homelessness problem in England.

The report, released by the UK Statistics Authority, found that statutory homelessness data need a range of improvements to retain its status as ‘National Statistics’. The Department for Community and Local Government’s prevention and relief and rough sleeping statistics were also looked at as part of the assessment and were found lacking. Above all, the UKSA says that the Government needs to be more transparent about what the three datasets collectively tell us about the state of homelessness in England.

The assessment was made following growing controversy over whether the official statistics give a full picture of homelessness in England or are masking the severity of the problem, so its findings add some momentum to this debate.

Recent Crisis research showed that the official statutory homelessness statistics can no longer be relied upon to show national trends. This is primarily due to local authorities helping a growing number of potentially homeless households under informal procedures, which are recorded outside of the official monitoring process. So though in 2013/14 the number of households accepted as statutorily homeless fell back slightly compared with the previous year, there has been a huge rise in homelessness demand. Two-thirds of potential homelessness cases are dealt with this way and since 2010 this type of activity increased by a third.

The UKSA report concludes that with more and more people being dealt with via informal ‘preventative’ methods, less emphasis should be placed on the statutory homelessness figures and more on the whole range of statistics collected. It is also vital that they are collected in the same level of detail and reported on as frequently to capture more accurately the scale of homelessness demand.

This matters because the information is hugely important – if we don’t know what the true demand is that local authority homelessness services are facing, how can we make the right decisions about how best to deal with it? At a time when local authorities are being forced to cope with diminishing resources, surely a more accurate picture to inform strategic decisions on budgets and priorities is all the more important.

We also need better rough sleeping data across the country as the snapshot methodology grossly understates the true scale of the issue. More sophisticated data on rough sleeping already exists in the England, but sadly it is currently restricted to London. CHAIN data are particularly useful in providing ‘flow’ information on rough sleepers in the capital rather than just snapshots, and offer more in-depth information about rough sleeper characteristics.

The report also concludes that as well as ensuring current homelessness statistics are as meaningful and as useful to strategic decision-making as possible, the Government could make better use of other sources of data, especially those which attempt to capture information about the hidden homeless. Given that we know the figures inevitably exclude those who are homeless but who do not approach a local authority for assistance or even more worryingly those who do but are turned away without help (as highlighted by Crisis’ recent mystery shopping exercise), it is crucial that this group is not forgotten.

The UKSA has done a good and thorough job of studying the issue from multiple perspectives. Like it or not the report presents an opportunity for homelessness statistics that is there to be seized by Government, which must now act on the recommendations. It is a call to action for homelessness data to achieve greater impact. With England currently facing a rising tide of homelessness the timing couldn’t be better.

The extent of homelessness in this country is a terrible scar on the face of society. Whilst good data won’t end homelessness in England, it is a crucial part of the answer. Ultimately political will is the determining factor, yet good data is invaluable because it gives us the power to make good choices.