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Hannah Gousy @HannahGousy Policy and Public Affairs Manager

The law urgently needs reviewing to curb rising rough sleeping

2,744 people were reported as sleeping rough on any one night in England, a figure that’s up by 14% from last year according to government stats released today. In London, the numbers were even more shocking, with a 37% increase in the number of people rough sleeping on the capital’s streets.

This year’s figures form part of an ongoing upward trend in officially estimated rough sleepers since 2010, during which time we have seen a 55% increase.

Why has homelessness increased?

Ultimately, a combination of a chronic shortage of affordable homes and welfare cuts has left more and more people struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Recent research from Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the weakening of the safety net and benefit sanctions are taking a dreadful toll on people’s lives, with rising numbers facing losing their homes. When people turn to their local authority for support a longstanding legal injustice means many homeless people are simply not considered a ‘priority’ for help. As a result an increasing number are turned away to sleep on the street.

Changes to the way Local Housing Allowance is calculated, pegging it to the 30th rather than the 50th percentile of market rates, the overall benefit cap and the extension of the shared accommodation rate has severely limited the pool of homes available to low income households receiving benefits. Given the particularly pronounced effect of these changes in London, it’s unsurprising that the rough sleeping figures are much higher here.

The local safety net has also taken a severe battering over the last couple of years. One significant factor in the increased number of people sleeping rough has been the cut to, and the decision to no longer ring fence the Supporting People ‘preventative’ services. In particular this has impacted on the number of returners sleeping rough, who have lost support networks that were previously funded through the programme. Further cuts to discretionary housing payments and local welfare assistance in the year ahead look set to make things even worse for people who are already struggling to keep a roof over their head.

In addition to the impact of welfare reform a chronic shortage of homes has pushed up rents, putting people at greater risk of homelessness. The loss of a private rented sector home is now the leading cause of homelessness. The undersupply of affordable homes also means that when people do find themselves homeless they struggle to find a place in a hostel because of the lack of affordable move on accommodation for current occupants.

Immigration – Who’s sleeping rough?

Coverage of the stats released today will likely focus on the number of Central and Eastern European (CEE) nationals sleeping rough, particularly in London.

There is no denying the steep rise in this group of rough sleepers. The new restrictions on Housing Benefit entitlements to the European Economic Area (EEA) migrants implemented in April 2014 are probably further contributing to rough sleeping amongst this group. We know that the vast majority of people coming to the UK from Central and Eastern Europe do successfully find employment and accommodation. They are actually only half as likely to claim the benefits they are entitled to than British nationals.

There are lots of people who come and work and still find themselves vulnerable to rough sleeping and homelessness because housing costs are so expensive and the safety net is rapidly disappearing. For the tiny minority of people who find themselves struggling, it is a concern that they are no longer able to claim Housing Benefit to pay for a hostel place and are forced to sleep rough. So while the rise in the number of CEE nationals rough sleepers raises fierce debate in immigration policy circles, it isn’t necessarily distinct and unrelated to the broader causes of homelessness, which urgently need addressing.

The rise in the number of CEE nationals sleeping rough also shouldn’t obscure other concerning trends in the statistics, particularly given that they remain outnumbered by those of UK origin and that homelessness continues to rise among all groups. The CHAIN database, which records the number of rough sleepers in London, shows that more than 2000 rough sleepers were classed as longer-term or ‘returner’ cases in 2013/14. This accounts for just under a third of all logged rough sleepers. Worryingly this means that there are lots of people who had found a route out of homelessness, but are finding themselves living on the streets again. This is arguably a much bigger story to come out of today’s stats.

Why do homeless people end up sleeping rough?

At present the homelessness legislation provides very little support to single homeless people when they find themselves in this situation compared to people who are deemed to be in priority need. With no legal duty to find most single homeless people accommodation, councils are turning increasing numbers of people away to sleep on the streets.

In the last quarter, 27,970 households made a homeless application to their local authority. Of that number 5,035 were found to be homeless but not in priority need. For this group of people, predominately made up of single households, there is no requirement for the local authority to offer them settled or interim temporary accommodation, only advice and assistance.

Crisis recently carried out research into the experience of single homeless people who approached their local authority for help. Shockingly in over half of the visits the support they received was inadequate or insufficient. Across the country this is likely to mean that thousands of homeless people are turned away with nothing and many forced to sleep rough.

The consequence of local authorities failing to intervene early can be devastating and can trap people for a far longer time.

That’s why Crisis is calling on all political parties to review the support currently given to homeless people. You can find out how to support Crisis’ No One Turned Away campaign here