For a group that tries to stay hidden, much is known about homeless people in London. The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) contains an individual record for every rough sleeper found since the late 1990s. These numbers have been causing problems for London’s mayor, Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson pledged to end rough sleeping when he stood for office in 2008. Yet the number of people seen sleeping on the streets during a year has risen from 3,017 then to 6,437.
Cuts to local-authority services aimed at supporting those with mental health problems and drug or alcohol addiction seem to have driven more to the streets. Since the financial crisis more economic migrants from eastern Europe have been sleeping rough. Poles alone make up 10% of London’s homeless.
Yet a good deal of the increase is a statistical quirk. Better use of outreach workers since 2010 and the promotion of Street Link, a rough-sleeping hotline, means more are found. The same year saw a change in methodology. Previously only those who had actually bedded down for the night were recorded as rough sleepers. Now those preparing to do so, who are talked out of it, are included too. These changes contributed to a headline-grabbing 43% increase in a single year.
While the flow of people on to the streets seems to have increased, the stock of entrenched homeless people—the really worrying group—has swollen much less. The mayor’s No Second Night Out policy, which provides an emergency place to sleep and some help to rough sleepers, has increased the proportion of the newly homeless spending only one night on the street from 62% in 2010 to 75% in 2012. Richard Blakeway, deputy mayor for housing, points out that only 3% are seen sleeping rough in all four quarters of the year.
Most of those visiting No Second Night Out are reconnected to family, friends or services, either in Britain or abroad. Howard Sinclair, chairman of Broadway London, a homeless charity, hears rumours of a rise in homelessness in smaller towns as London becomes more assertive about refusing services to those without a local connection. The small towns to which they return have less capacity to cope. The capital may be driving some of the problem elsewhere.