Housing and Homelessness

Rough sleeping in London: Back to the old normal, not building back better

  • Published: Feb 04, 2021
  • Author: Rebecca Tunstall
  • Category: Housing and Homelessness

The effort to get rough sleepers off the streets during the Covid pandemic was ‘extraordinary’, and in some terms, extremely successful. However, the total number of people experiencing rough sleeping in London grew during the first lockdown. New data just published for the last three months of 2020 confirms that the number of regular rough sleepers is continuing to grow. Now the effort and funding are fading, and unless we learn from ‘Everyone in’ and past experience, we are about to go back to the old normal of high homelessness.

Everyone in

As the Covid-19 lockdown began, there was widespread concern that rough sleepers couldn’t isolate, and were at high risk of getting infected and infecting others. In March, Government started a programme called ‘Everyone in’ to bring all people sleeping rough, totalling 6,000 across England, into emergency hotel and hostel accommodation. It provided local authorities with a modest £3.3m to help do this.[1] The other UK nations had similar schemes.

'Everyone In' was described by the charity Shelter as "one of the most extraordinary things to have ever happened in homelessness in this country",[2]and by the charity Crisis as "a landmark moment".[3] Many people have seen it as one of the strongest parts of the Westminster government’s Covid response in England.[4] By late April 2020, 5,400 (90%) of rough sleepers in England in March were in empty hotels and other buildings. Research published in The Lancet found that over February-May 2020, the programme prevented an estimated 266 Covid-19 deaths, 338 intensive care admissions, 1,164 hospital admissions and 1,092 infections.[5] By September, 11,000 former rough sleepers were in emergency accommodation and 19,000 were in settled accommodation or had been provided advice to achieve it.[6]

But not everyone in

However, success in helping people off the streets has not been complete, or sustained, and has not been matched by success in preventing new people becoming homeless.

In London, charity outreach workers count all the individual people they come across sleeping rough, and report figures for each three-month period. They categorise people according to whether they are new to the streets (seen just once), living on the streets (seen at least 5 times over at least 3 weeks) or sleeping rough intermittently (more than once but not living on the streets).

Many established rough sleepers successfully left the streets during the pandemic, through moves into emergency and other accommodation. Before the pandemic, outreach workers found 377 individuals ‘living on the streets’ over January-March. Over April-June this had reduced by 113 or 30%, to 264 people.

However, the benefits of ‘Everyone in’ could not be sustained. In July-September the numbers of people living on the streets crept back up to 336, and in October-December again to 412, actually higher than before the pandemic.

In addition, the total number of people identified sleeping rough at least once in the capital did not fall by the hoped-for 100% – or indeed at all. As the graph shows, the number actually rose, from 3,713 different individuals over January to March before the pandemic, to 4,266 over April to June, in the first lockdown. From this peak the number came back down again, to close to old normal pre-pandemic levels at 3,476 over July-September and 3,354 over October-December.

Numbers of individual rough sleepers encountered in London, Oct-Dec 2018 to Oct-Dec 2020

CHAIN rough sleeping graph.png

Source: Greater London CHAIN reports; data accessed 1st February  2021

Of course, without ‘Everyone in’, the figures for homelessness – and Covid hospitalisations and deaths – would have been worse.

But why did ‘Everyone in’ have such little effect on the total numbers sleeping rough in London? Firstly, the people helped into safe, self-contained emergency accommodation included not only those literally on the streets in March, but also people in shared accommodation such as night shelters and homeless hostels that posed a high infection risk.

Secondly, the first lockdown itself generated more homelessness. Outreach workers found 1,841 people new to the streets in January-March, but 2,680 in April-June during the first lockdown, an increase of 839 or 46%. People lost their accommodation because they lost work or income, or family and friends were no longer willing to house them due to worries about distancing or money. Over July-September 2020, as the first lockdown eased, the number of new rough sleepers declined to 1,901 people, very close to the pre-pandemic normal.

Thirdly, ‘Everyone in’ slowed over time. By the autumn, it was not clear how further hotel spaces would be paid for, whether shared accommodation could be used again, and whether normal rules (for example preventing help to those with No Recourse to Public Funds) should resume.[7] In January 2021, as a third national lockdown began in England, there were calls for 'Everyone in' to be restarted. However, the government said that funding was available within the pre-pandemic national Rough Sleeping Strategy.

Building back better

‘Everyone in’ has shown what can be achieved to rapidly provide secure and reasonable quality housing for homeless people. Well before the pandemic, we already knew what was needed to end homelessness.[8] The Major government reduced rough sleeping in London by more than half in 1990-93.[9] The Blair government reduced rough sleeping nationwide by two thirds in 1998-2002.[10] The current national strategy aims to cut rough sleeping by half 2018-22. But given the rate of progress pre-pandemic, this will take another decade. Well before the pandemic, Crisis argued that the compared to past efforts and current needs, the current national strategy was not ambitious or expensive enough. It needed to include more support for local authorities and charities, housing benefit that covers all the rent for all renters on low incomes, and a marked increase in the supply of social housing.[11]

Now, instead of building back better, we are going back to the old normal on housing and homelessness policy, with double the number of people recorded sleeping rough across England on a single autumn night in 2019 as in 2010.



[1] Cromarty, H (2020). Coronavirus: Support for rough sleepers (England), Briefing paper no. 09057, 27th November, House of Commons Library

[2] Heath, L (2020) 'Rough sleeping in lockdown 2.0: Is the government’s Everyone In policy on the way out?', Inside Housing, 20th November

[3] Cromarty 2020

[4] Heath 2020

[5] Lewer, D.; Braithwaite, I.; Bullock, M.; Eyre, M.T.; White, P.J. and Aldridge, R.W. et al., (2020). 'COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness in England: A modelling study', The Lancet Respiritory, 23rd September

[6] Cromarty 2020

[7] Heath 2020

[8] Downie, M. et al (2018), Everybody in: How to end homelessness in Great Britain, Crisis, London

[9] Wilson, W. (2015), Rough Sleepers Initiative (RSI) 1990-1999, House of Commons Library Standard Note SN07121, Housing of Commons Library, London

[10] Wilson, W. and Barton, C. (2019) Statutory homelessness in England, House of Commons Library Briefing Paper No. 01164, 1st February, House of Commons Library, London

[11] Downie et al 2018


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