Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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September 26 2009
Homeless head counts just don‘t add up, says Lifeline Speculation over the accuracy of the UK's homeless head counts has grown in the last few weeks following a report on the BBC's Today Programme in July. However, The Pavement has spoken to members of the homeless community who say this is old news.

A BBC investigation, with the support of drugs charity Lifeline, claimed that figures in Manchester has underestimated the extent of the cities problem, and implied that the city in the North may not be the only area not painting a true picture. When Lifeline surveyed drug users at its needle exchanges in Manchester, the charity calculated there were between 230 and 400 people sleeping rough in the city. But an official government count put the total number of homeless people at just seven. Lifeline said the official surveying process used nationally was flawed, as counters only included those bedded down for the evening. The charity also claimed the official count was carried out at random on one night of the year and that counters were told to avoid entering areas regarded as dangerous, thus discounting vast swathes of the city.

The government-approved system for counting rough sleepers in England has been in place nearly 10 years and has been used as the basis for official claims that rough sleeping has been reduced by 73 per cent in England over the past nine years. Reports given to The Pavement by rough sleepers suggest that the figures are equally inaccurate in the country's capital.

Roy Vidamour was sleeping rough in London with his wife and their dog last October when they experienced first-hand the nature of some homeless head counts. In the stretch from Marble Arch to Paddington there were two counts. On one evening, Mr Vidamour and his wife were on their own and they were counted, but a few weeks later, they were sleeping in a group with 10 or 12 other people. On this occasion they were ignored. "I believe – no, actually, I know! – that these people doing the counts stay away from large groups of people when they are counting," Mr Vidamour said. "There were about 16 of us on this occasion. Now, say there is a count of just over 100 people sleeping rough, that group accounts for 15 per cent."

He added that he believes these anomalies are simply accepted by the police, authorities and even homeless shelters. Mr Vidamour said: "Street services will just come up to us - they know what they are doing - and they will say, "We won't tip away your beer tonight if you go to Hyde Park or across the river to Southwark." By moving groups on, they reduce the figures substantially." But for Mr Vidamour, it was not simply the manipulation of the figures that upset him, it was the welfare of rough sleepers. "Homeless people tend to sleep together to feel safe - larger groups feel happier together," he explained. "But by splitting people up, the authorities are causing vulnerable people to be more vulnerable." He added that although he could not say for certain whether the dispersion of groups coincided with heads counts on all occasions, he was sure moving on groups did make the work of local authorities easier.

A spokesperson for the government said: "Local authorities set the actual date of their counts. They do not publicise the count as some people sleeping rough may avoid their usual areas on the night if they know a count is taking place. Clearly, this would undermine the methodology." The spokesperson declined to comment whether the information was available under the Freedom of Information Act.

Upon contacting the local police services involved in head counts, Inspector Malcolm Barnard, of the Westminster Homeless Unit, said there were no proposed full counts of homeless persons until the end of 2007. "I have no input with regard to the dates. I think these are set by central government," he added. "Our involvement is to identify those rough sleepers not known to outreach. We do not conduct the counting." From a policing perspective, Inspector Barnard said his concerns lay with those rough sleepers who are hiding in the community for whatever reason, and added that those not using the services of BBS (Building Based Services) remain invisible. He declined to comment on Mr Vidamour's accusations. At present the issue of counting the number of rough sleepers on Britain's streets is open to interpretation. The authorities and the police have been using a method that appears to be inaccurate, and many rough sleepers would argue that these inaccuracies are born out of deliberate manipulation of the numbers.

As in too many parts of society, the homeless are ignored and they vanish from statistics. Until a thorough investigation is undertaken into homeless head counts we may never know how many people sleep on the streets.