22 October, 2010
In September 2010, the Government published new guidance on how local authorities are to conduct street counts of the number of people who are sleeping rough in their area. It is said by the Government to be a more accurate of estimating the total with the aim of obtaining a more accurate image of the number of rough sleepers across the country.
One of the biggest changes implemented by the new procedure is that the definition of a 'rough sleeper' has been expanded. What is to be considered as someone "bedding down" now incorporates individuals who are about to bed down i.e. standing or sitting next to bedding and also includes people in tents (excluding people on campsites and organised protests).
The guidance also encourages neighbouring local authorities to work in partnership and carry out their counts on the same night in order to avoid the potential for rough sleepers who move between local authority areas to be counted more than once, thereby distorting the findings.
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) will also cease to attend and oversee the counts. The responsibility for ensuring adherence with the relevant procedures will be transferred to Homeless Link (a national charity for frontline homelessness agencies) who will engage volunteers from their member agencies and also from faith groups.
Local authorities are asked to provide DCLG with a figure taken on one night between 1 October and 30 November each year. This period has been selected in order to avoid winter homeless shelters altering the true number of rough sleepers.
The guidance states that the decision on when a rough sleeping count will be carried out is one which each local authority must make. When a decision has been made to carry out a count, it is expected that it will follow the steps in the guidance. It is suggested that in order to determine whether there is a rough sleeping problem within their area (which could be measured by a count), a local authority could seek assistance and intelligence from outreach organisations, the police and voluntary sector groups.
It is also recommended in the guidance that a count will take a minimum of six weeks to plan properly, as it will give sufficient time to obtain the assistance of partner agencies. It may also be necessary to hold a pre-count meeting for all the organisations to discuss where it is likely that rough sleepers will be located on the night of the count.
Selecting the night when the count will take place is also said to be an important aspect. The guidance advises careful consideration of when to schedule it so as to avoid any special local events (such as festivals) which may distort the numbers. Similarly, the guidance suggests not choosing weekends as street drinkers and other individuals may be out on the streets later than normal, which again could cause a misrepresentation of the true number. When a satisfactory date has been selected, it will also be necessary to agree both a start and finish time for the count. Under the guidance the earliest permitted start time is midnight, but it is said to be prudent to begin at 02:00am in towns and cities in order to ensure that rough sleepers who bed down late will be counted. It is recommended that counts should be completed by 05:00am but in rural areas it may be conducted up to 07:00am.
With there only being potentially limited resources to be spent on the count, the guidance says that it is not necessary to cover every street within their area. Instead, it is advised that efforts should be focused upon known rough sleeping areas. The fact that a count is to take place should also be made known to only those who are involved in the count as it is said that some rough sleepers may avoid their usual areas if they are aware of when a count will take place.
A trained and independent verifier will also have to be arranged with Homeless Link to attend the count to ensure that it has been undertaken correctly and safely.
These changes to how the number of rough sleepers in the country is calculated will have an impact upon the workings of local authorities. Such organisations should ensure that they satisfy the guidance procedure when conducting such counts and provide the relevant figures to DCLG when required to do so.