The number of rough sleepers is still rising; it’s time to locate the bright spots

A recent post on LinkedIn attracted more than the usual amount of attention from socially conscious readers.


A digital creative director based in Doncaster kicked off a conversation asking if others had “noticed the level of vagrancy on the increase in the town centre”.

According to the writer, one particular tunnel had become a “breeding ground for smacked-up homeless people” complete with crudely drawn graffiti.

He wondered why Doncaster did not do more to combat its historically negative reputation.

The language chosen highlights one particular aspect of the problem; attitudes towards homeless people in 2017 are in some quarters still rooted in Dickension times. Perhaps it is necessary to jolt those of us whose conscience is bothered every time we pass someone with a worn-out sleeping bag and concrete pillow for comfort.

Whatever the writer’s intention may have been, what was presented as a Doncaster problem quickly developed into contagion across the length and breadth of England.

From Manchester to Torquay, via Leeds, Peterborough and Slough comments rained in from eye witness accounts about people sleeping rough.

Most responses were sympathetic towards their plight, but they were of the kind which normally accompany the sucking in of breath between teeth, such as:

“Provisions for the homeless are threadbare.”
“Town centres don’t want [rough sleepers]…rural communities keep pushing them back.”
“There are thousands of empty properties.”
“Councils spend money on artwork, but say no to paying for rooms.”
“Vastly underfunded mental health services, undersupply of housing, welfare reform…”
“Maybe…it’s something to do with the priorities of our current government.”

It is easy to play the blame game and wring hands when it comes to homelessness. Successive governments have failed to deliver on housing promises for over 40 years.

Market inequalities are widening inexorably. Care and social services are fragmenting.

Homeless charities are under pressure; as reported in 24housing, on World Homeless Day 2017 St Mungo’s called on the government to protect funding for hostels.

But the statistics that lie behind each human tragedy can no longer be ignored. More than 4,100 people were sleeping rough on an average Autumn night in 2016, an increase of 134% since 2010. Over the same period homelessness accommodation has declined by nearly 20%.

In their seminal book “Switch”, authors Chip & Dan Heath give suggestions for making change stick; locate the bright spots and replicate them.

When confronted with a seemingly insurmountable problem like homelessness which has forever been with us, grand designs and over-thinking invariably result in wheel-spinning.

Perhaps this explains why the two most recent governmental pledges, in 1998 and 2008, to eradicate or drastically reduce rough sleeping failed to produce any significant lasting outcomes.

There are projects that work in certain localities such as “No Second Night Out”. Locating the bright spots is about finding out what works, replicating them and concentrating scarce resources towards proven solutions.

The Government has less than six months until the Homelessness Reduction Act comes into force.

They have pledged £61m of resources to councils’ new responsibilities including earlier intervention, a significant sum or drop in the ocean depending through which end of the lens we look.

Let us hope they devote the remaining time available and the cash to finding and replicating the bright spots.

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