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Rough sleeping falls but Shelter warns too many are being denied help

Posted 25 Feb 2021

The government has today released new snapshot figures on the number of people found to be sleeping rough in England on a given night in autumn 2020. They show:

  • despite the dangers of street homelessness during the pandemic, 2,688 people were recorded as sleeping rough on a given night in autumn 2020

  • due to government efforts and ‘Everyone In’, the number of people recorded as street homeless was 37% lower than in 2019, but it was still 52% higher than in 2010 when the data first started being collected (1,768)

  • in 2020, the local authorities in England with the highest numbers of people sleeping rough were Westminster, Manchester, and Bristol

  • 85% (2,277) of the people recorded as sleeping rough were men, and 14% (377) were women. It is believed the number of women is more likely to be underestimated because more women choose, for example, to sleep away from public walkways, and will be missed from counts as a result

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “The huge effort made to help people off the streets shows what can be done. But the war is not won. No one should be sleeping rough during the pandemic, and we’re still a long way from zero.

“Emergency accommodation needs to be there for everyone at risk of the street, yet we know it’s not. Every week our frontline services pick up new cases of homeless people who are being point blank refused any help. Just one of the cases we’ve dealt with involved a frightened young man who was turned away no less than four times by the council in the dead of winter, because they said he wasn’t in ‘priority need’.

“Whether someone is offered a safe bed for the night instead of a cold pavement, should not be up for debate. The pandemic isn’t over, and we must continue to keep people safe. The government needs to ensure its hard work is not undone by giving councils explicit guidance to provide everyone with emergency accommodation and support.”


Notes to editors:

  • All figures are taken from MHCLG, ‘Rough sleeping snapshot in England: autumn 2020’ Published 25th February 2021 Available: Details about how the data was collected is available here:

  • The total number of people sleeping rough on a given night in 2020, 2019 and 2010, and the councils with the highest number of people found to be sleeping rough on a given night in 2020 are from ‘Rough sleeping snapshot in England: autumn 2020 – tables: Table 1: Total number of people sleeping rough, by local authority and region England, autumn 2010-2020’

  • 242 people were reported to be sleeping rough in Westminster on a given night in 2020, 68 in Manchester and 50 in Bristol.

  • The number of men and women reported to be sleeping rough on a given night in 2020 are from ‘Rough sleeping snapshot in England: autumn 2020 – tables: Table 2a: Gender of people sleeping rough by local authority and region England, autumn 2017-2020’. The percentages do not sum to 100 as the gender of 34 people was not known.

  • According to MHCLG: ‘This year’s rough sleeping snapshot coincided with a national lockdown throughout November and the tier restrictions in October. This is likely to have impacted people’s risk of rough sleeping and should be noted when comparing this year’s annual snapshot figures with previous years.’

  • Shelter’s legal services and advice team have seen numerous cases from across the country of people who have been denied help as a result of a lack of clear guidance for councils. Some examples collected from 8th January 2021 include:

  1. A street homeless man in the North West, who had been rough sleeping for several months, approached the council for assistance in January 2021. He had been told to contact the council by the police after he had contacted them because he was scared about being outside during the latest lockdown. However, he was told he would need to bed down on the street and be verified by the council’s outreach team to qualify for emergency accommodation. The council accommodated him for one night, but he was then told the following day he would have to leave and be verified again. The man then approached Shelter for assistance who contacted the council on his behalf and were again told that he would need to found bedding down on the street to receive any help. He did so and was then accommodated over the weekend, but on the Monday, he was yet again told he would have to leave and bed down again. The case was then referred to Shelter’s legal team who sent a pre-action protocol letter to the council saying they would legally challenge the council’s refusal to provide emergency accommodation. It was only when legal action was threatened that the council agreed to accommodate the man indefinitely.

  2. A homeless man based in London contacted Shelter for assistance in January 2021 as he had been told by the council that he needed to leave accommodation provided to him under the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP). A caseworker from Shelter contacted the council and was told the man had been asked to leave the accommodation as SWEP was no longer in place. Furthermore, the council stated the man would need to be verified as sleeping rough by Streetlink before they could even advise him on what services he could access. The caseworker reminded the council the government had requested that local authorities accommodate all rough sleepers, providing them with the MHCLG letter from the 8th January. The council claimed they were not aware of this and asked the caseworker what exactly the letter was requesting the council do.

  3. In January 2021, a man based in the North East who had previously been long-term street homelessness, came to Shelter for help because the council asked him to leave the accommodation that they had provided him with during the pandemic on the grounds they did not believe he was homeless. A caseworker from Shelter contacted the council to request that they provide the man with interim accommodation. However, the council refused to accommodate him on the basis that they did not believe the man was in priority need. The caseworker reminded the council of their Winter Plan to accommodate all rough sleepers until March 2021 but again the council refused to accommodate the man. The council stated that the man had not been found rough sleeping nor had any contact with the area’s homelessness outreach team, despite the team confirming they were aware of him. This left the man feeling like he had no choice but to bed down in the street in the hopes that the outreach team would find him. The caseworker continued to request that council accommodate the man, contacting different members of staff until eventually one housing manager agreed to do so.