Counting Rough Sleepers

So how do you count the number of people sleeping rough in your town (in this case Southend with its 176000 or so residents)? That is the task that central government has given local authorities, up and down the country, for these past few years, to take place on one day in the year around about this time. Having watched from the sidelines in recent years, with a degree of skepticism because of the low numbers that were counted did not reflect the reality I knew existed, I decided I would “sign up” and join the team of counters going about this task and did so in the early hours of this morning.

To give credit where credit is due, our local council ought to be commended on the way it has conducted the operation, and in a time of austerity. Contrary to what some people think, there was a genuine desire to get the count right and do all that could be done to achieve that end. For the past several weeks, working alongside HARP, our town’s leading homeless charity, supported by other agencies working among rough sleepers, including Street Spirit and Street Pastors, with which I am involved, it has been able to compile valuable intelligence as to who are the rough sleepers in the town, what their needs are (sometimes around alcohol and mental health) and where they hang out. The database (which is confidential) has now well over 100 entries. To carry out the count, around 18 people from various partner agencies got involved. These were divided into small teams tasked to find out how many people were actually sleeping rough. Each team was assigned a specific area, known to include “hot spots” where rough sleepers are expected to be.

My team comprised me, Joe from St. Mungos and Christine from Homeless Link. St. Mungos has recently been commissioned by our Council to help identify and seek out rough sleepers in the town, with the view to getting them helped and housed (a formidable task as any who have read my blogs on the subject will know). Homeless Link is an interesting organisation, which among other things produces a national database of where rough sleepers have been sighted (I was politely taken to task for not reporting in when I had sited such folk in the past). Christine was also the independent verifier that the count had been carried out correctly.

The areas we had been given were rather large, and as it happened were not those that rough sleepers were known to regularly frequent, and we knew that we would only be able to cover a small fraction of the nooks and crannies where rough sleepers might be expected to be. As it happened, the areas we were given were well known to me as a local resident although these looked somewhat different in the early hours of the morning and as I became more aware of places where rough sleepers could be. Walking around two of the major parks in the town, talking to my team members about this and that was a somewhat surreal experience, yet a pleasant one.

As it happened, our teams attempts at finding rough sleepers amounted to just one, who we literally stumbled across, almost by accident. The overall total for the night was fourteen. In the past, I would have been disappointed, realising the number is many times more than this, but it was a worthwhile exercise nevertheless. How do you go about finding needles in haystacks? What about those no go zones, like derelict buildings and locked areas, which we couldn’t cover, as well as the large number of places we couldn’t explore as thoroughly as we might because of limited time and resources? It just illustrates how difficult it is to get a accurate figure and even that excludes sofa surfers and such like.

What was established could be looked upon as a benchmark or stake in the ground, on which we could build on and hopefully (and some cynics might feel I am being over-optimistic here) decision makers won’t be lulled into a false perception of a problem that those of us work among rough sleepers know is much bigger than what our figures suggest. I have been encouraged in recent weeks by the number of grass roots public working toward addressing homeless issues and the number of agencies (but sadly not all – mental health please take note) doing their bit to help within a multi-disciplined paradigm. What remains the case, the situation on the ground is dire and there is much work that remains to be done!

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