New research has revealed that the number of street homeless in Manchester alone could be almost as high as the official national figure.
Cutting street homelessness was a priority for Tony Blair’s government when it won power in 1997.
Local councils were encouraged to adopt a more proactive approach to prevention and monitoring, and under the Homeless Act 2002 were required to devise homelessness strategies.
By then, the government was claiming to have reduced the number of rough sleepers by two-thirds.
But, while most working in the field agree that some progress has been made, some accuse the government and local authorities of spinning in the figures for political reasons.
This is the claim in a new report by drugs agency Lifeline, which found the number of rough sleepers in Manchester alone could top 400.
A study of 100 clients of its city centre needle exchange revealed that 37 were roofless. That does not include those who were staying in hostels, refuges or bed and breakfasts.
The researchers then used statistical analysis to calculate that between 230 and 401 of the agency’s 850 clients were likely to be sleeping rough.
Manchester City Council’s estimate for the same period – 2006 – was that seven people were street homeless, down from a high of 44 in 1999.
The total for all 10 boroughs which make up Greater Manchester was put at just 14. The national total was 502.
These official “snapshot” figures were calculated from the annual street counts local authorities are required to carry out, and form the basis of the government’s claims to have cut rough sleeping by almost 70 per cent.
On one night every year – councils are free to set their own date - a team of officials and volunteers heads into urban areas and combs a number of streets, marking down anyone believed to be sleeping rough.
From this year, all councils must have their counts independently verified by someone from the voluntary sector.
But Dr Russell Newcombe, who carried out the Lifeline research, believes the whole process is a waste of time. He says most roofless people, like Steve, spend their nights sheltering in abandoned properties.
Only people who are “clearly bedded down” and on public land are counted by the officials, who are not allowed to enter buildings and only have the time to cover a limited area.
The result, in his view, is that the authorities are closing their eyes to some of the most vulnerable members of society.
With no accurate data on the scale of the problem, services are compromised.
“Drug users and homeless people are in many ways a hidden population, and therefore it’s hard to estimate the true scale of the problem,” he says.
“But there are sophisticated techniques now being used in the drug field, which are working well.
“Yet with rough sleeping, the government simply sends a team of people out to look in public places, for a few hours on one night a year. The whole thing is ridiculous.
“It’s almost a method for making people invisible. I would never use such a useless method for my research. Everyone who works in this field knows it is worthless.
“Sadly, the result is that there are people out there who need services but who are being missed.”
In Scotland, where the Scottish Executive is in charge of housing policy, one-night street counts have been abandoned altogether.
Cities now calculate their number of rough sleepers through contact with specialist agencies. About 300 people are thought to be rough sleeping in Glasgow, according to the Glasgow Homelessness Network – a partnership which includes the city council.
So far, few organisations except for Lifeline have called for the government to bite the bullet and do the same.
Many individual housing workers are reluctant to speak on the record about the issue. Most agencies active in the field are funded largely through public grants handed out through local authorities.
With so many voluntary organisations chasing an ever-diminishing pot of cash, few are willing to risk being too controversial.
But some suggest privately that several factors could be at play when it comes to reporting street homelessness.
The regeneration of Britain’s cites could partly be to blame, since homeless drug users do not fit into the image of shiny, successful urban centres.
But national targets set by government may not be helpful. No local authority wants any sudden increases in homeless figures.
But some fear under-estimating the scale of the problem could mean resources are diverted from rough sleepers and towards other groups, such as those living in temporary accomodation.
“If street counts are put forward as a snapshot and treated with caution then they can be useful. The danger is when they are presented as the true picture of homeless and used for big claims about achievements,” says one North West agency worker.
“The current approach also makes it difficult to return a higher number. If last year’s count found four people but this year’s showed 15, that could be quite a scary thing for a local authority.
“If you have invested funds to sort out rough sleeping, and the figures have quadrupled, what does that say about the commissioning of services in your area? “When people are pushed towards national targets, areas need to be getting rough sleeping down. If agencies aren’t being seen as effective services could be commissioned elsewhere. So you can understand why there is a degree of nervousness there.”
The manager of another homeless project tells how plans for an independent street count were shelved earlier this year, as the local authority was “edgy” about the idea.
The woman says: “Our council didn’t want us to come out directly and contradict their official figures, in case it affected the money they received from central government. From what I understand, they could lose funding if they don’t hit their targets.
“The whole thing is so political. It’s a ridiculous situation, that everyone’s chasing the same money yet there are still so many people not receiving the services they need.”
Manchester’s executive member for neighbourhood services, Cllr Eddy Newman, rejects the possibility that the Lifeline research could be correct.
“Our annual head count of rough sleepers, carried out in line with methodology devised by central government and homelessness agencies, is used to monitor the extent of rough sleeping in the city,” he says.
“It is a snapshot and allows us to monitor any changes in the numbers and allow us to adapt our service accordingly.
“However we would refute absolutely any research that suggested that the numbers of people rough sleeping in the city is or could be anywhere near 400.”