London Reports Record High Number of Rough Sleepers in 2019–20

UK Rough Sleepers

Statistics Recorded Prior to Pandemic Outbreak

In the United Kingdom, the number of homeless people sleeping in London in 2019/20 rose to a record high of more than 10,000. According to the Greater London Authority, the figure was more than double the total a decade ago.

Statistics show that 10,726 people were spotted sleeping rough during a 12-month period ending in March 2020. This is a 21 percent increase from the previous year and is nearly 170 percent higher than the 3,975-figure taken in the 2010/11 financial year.

However, it’s argued that these figures are not particularly relevant right now. This is because they were recorded before the spread of COVID-19 in London, which changed everything for rough sleepers in the capital.

The United Kingdom’s government was famously applauded for quickly housing homeless people earlier this year as the pandemic heightened. In the capital, 15,000 homeless people were moved into temporary accommodations, including city hotels.

Will this move keep rough sleepers off London’s streets? Or can we expect this figure to rise even further in the next decade?

Why the Rise?

So, what’s the reason for the significant rise of rough sleepers in London over the past decade?

Some suggest the sharp increase could partly be due to a more thorough search for homeless people in London. With more funding placed on outreach workers under the government’s rough sleeping initiative, it means that more rough sleepers may have been found. After all, the statistics show that 7,053 rough sleepers were living on the capital’s streets for the first time.

It’s also important to consider the statistics don’t include the “hidden homeless.” This includes people who are living in squats or may be “sofa surfing” from friends and family’s homes and apartments.

Instead, the statistics focus on people who were discovered at least once from 2019 to 2020, sleeping rough on London’s streets or in areas that aren’t designed for habitation. These spaces and locations include doorways, parks, stairwells and derelict buildings.

These are cumulative figures collected throughout the year. While they provide a good overview of who is living on the streets in terms of their profile, some people have a brief experience of rough sleeping, sometimes a single night.

It’s also important to consider the number of people from these statistics who experience at least a year on London’s city streets is relatively small. This data is different from the annual street count data, which shows a fall in rough sleeping. Instead, these figures show the point in time data of a single night.

Government action implementing the “Everyone In” scheme early in the pandemic was a huge success and saved many lives. However, activists worry that more recent shifts in this commitment will lead to a significant resurgence of rough sleepers in London.

With coronavirus cases rising during the colder winter months, lives are at risk. We cannot allow thousands to sleep rough. Nor can we rely on crowded communal homeless shelters where the risk of contagion is high.

What Happened to Rough Sleepers During Lockdown?

The government announced a £3.2 million scheme to help homeless people into temporary accommodation during the spread of coronavirus.

Many people who lost their jobs as the city shut down were forced onto the streets. The most heavily affected were foreign nationals who did not have access to public funds.

The multimillion-pound “Everyone In” scheme was championed as an example of what could happen when homelessness was prioritized, drawing worldwide interest. According to housing, communities, and local government secretary Robert Jenrick, the scheme took 90% of rough sleepers off the streets and into safe and secure accommodation.

We must be cautious about the data presented from the Greater London Authority. Why? Because the information relates to the year before the “Everyone In” strategy was implemented.

The letter from Luke Hall, Regional Growth and Local Government, who requested the local authorities across England to move everyone inside, came out from the minister late in March. That means local authorities’ quick action to move rough sleepers from London’s streets wouldn’t have shown in these recent statistics.

Reports of homeless people rose rapidly during the lockdown. However, while many people moved onto the streets at the start of lockdown, most rough sleepers were quickly transferred into temporary accommodations soon after. These accommodations include hotel rooms that would otherwise remain empty due to the pandemic.

But, fresh figures from Streetlink illustrate that again, the picture isn’t so simple. The app service allows members of the public to refer rough sleepers to outreach teams for assistance. Alerts from public reporting increased 36% year on year between April and June, with figures rising to 16,976. Unfortunately, reports were also more common in comparison to the previous quarter. This is particularly unusual because the number of rough sleepers typically rises in the colder months.

There was a whopping 76% increase in homelessness in London, totaling 71% of all alerts, which was higher than usual.

Director of Streetlink Matt Harrison, suggested the increase was due to rough sleepers being more visible during the pandemic. During the lockdown, in the capital’s usually bustling streets, homeless people may have stood out more than usual. Additionally, members of the public may have had a heightened concern and were more likely to report rough sleepers.

Despite this, Harrison pointed out that for many, this is their first time sleeping on London’s city streets. This is a direct impact of the pandemic, primarily due to a loss of jobs and support services shutting down.

What Can We Expect Next in London?

The UK government is currently assessing the situation with both the Public Health England and the Ministry of Housing. They will determine whether opening up safer emergency communal shelters is a possibility to house rough sleepers from both COVID-19 and the cold this winter.

While some people have returned to the streets, many are moving to longer-term accommodation. Last week the United Kingdom government announced the bids’ outcomes for additional temporary accommodation, including the continuation of hotel room stays where necessary.

The UK government will soon announce bids’ outcomes for longer-term accommodation for rough sleepers. This will prevent homeless people from being left on the streets.

There is some funding coming through for short- and long-term accommodation. However, it’s hard to know whether this will prevent a return of mass rough sleeping to London’s streets. The results depend on the effectiveness of how the funding is spent.

Will the funded projects be successful? Or, as people inevitably continue to lose their jobs due to COVID-19, will there be significant numbers of homeless people in London?

Ellie Swain

Ellie Swain


Ellie is a freelance writer who grew up in London. She is passionate about ending homelessness and writes for various publications, non-profits, and marketing agencies to produce content. In her spare time, Ellie loves travelling to new places, exploring her city of London, and listening to live music.

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