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A moving target

September 30 2010
We look at the shift in deadline for ending rough sleeping in 2012

The deadline for ending rough sleeping in London by 2012 has slipped to the end of that year.

The target originated in 2008, when the then housing minister Margaret Beckett made the landmark declaration that rough sleeping would be eradicated in Britain "for good" in time for the 2012 Olympics. Just two years on, it has emerged that the deadline has been quietly moved from before the start of the Games in the summer to the end of the year.

Ms Beckett's bold pledge to banish homelessness - however welcome - raised a few eyebrows at the time, especially as it was accompanied by virtually no new resources and very few ideas. These doubts increased when the Government announced it would no longer publish a national estimate of the number of people sleeping rough, a figure that has remained around 500 on any given night. The absence of an accurate annual measure of street homelessness makes it impossible to assess progress towards the 2012 target.

Ms Beckett's declaration that "rough sleeping in 21st century Britain is unacceptable" followed Tony Blair's 1998 New Labour promise to reduce rough sleeping to "as close to zero as possible" but by at least two-thirds.

National homeless umbrella organisation Homeless Link campaigned for the 2012 target of ending rough sleeping and still declares on its website that the end point will be before the Olympics. The website states: "We are campaigning for an end to rough sleeping 'once and for all' in this country by the time the Olympics come to Britain in 2012. Often homelessness is swept out of sight for the Olympics, this time we believe it can be different."

However, a spokesman for London Mayor Boris Johnson told The Pavement: "By ending rough sleeping, we mean that by the end of 2012, no one will live on the streets of London, and no individual arriving on the streets will sleep out for a second night."

A Homeless Link spokesman explained: "The original campaign was to end rough sleeping by the time the Olympics came to Britain, which would have been the summer of 2012. But the Mayor has since committed to this being the end of 2012 instead. This was considered to be more realistic and appropriate."

In February 2009, the Mayor launched the London Delivery Board to as part of the drive to end rough sleeping in the capital. Its version of the 2012 pledge is: "By the end of 2012 no one will live on the streets of London and no individual arriving on the streets will sleep out for a second night."

In November 2009, the Mayor's office updated its progress in reaching this goal, declaring that "two-thirds of the capital's most entrenched rough sleepers [138 of the 205 long-term rough sleepers targeted] are now off the streets". They stated that had been achieved through initiatives including the creation of a new outreach service, a street doctor service and the promotion of homeless volunteer services.

The shift in deadline also accompanies changes to the way rough sleeper head counts are to be carried out: the Department of Communities and Local Government want the counts to become voluntary rather than mandatory. The government is also proposing to expand the definition of rough sleeper to include people living in tents (migrant workers from Eastern Europe, for example) and those clearly intending to bed down on the street as opposed to only those actually lying down. Under the old system, people who slept in housing block stairwells, garages, bin sheds, green spaces and on buses were not counted. (see 'Counts are optional')

The official national Rough Sleeping Count published last month showed that there were just 440 rough sleepers in England. But according to the CHAIN database, which is maintained by homeless charity Broadway, 3,673 people were seen rough sleeping in the capital last year. London is considered to be the location of more than half of the country's rough sleepers. The Department of Health estimated in a recent paper that more 40,000 people are at risk of homelessness.

With the numbers on the streets predicted to rise, we'll watch to see if this target shifts again before 2012.