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On 14 September, the department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) marked the biggest reform in years to the way the number of rough sleepers is assessed with the publication of new guidance on how to conduct street counts.
'Evaluating the extent of rough sleeping - a new approach' is the result of a CLG consultation which lasted from 23 July to 3 September and invited suggestions from local authorities and charities. It was much anticipated, following comments on 16 June from housing minister Grant Shapps, MP for Welwyn Hatfield, who condemned the old system as "flawed".
The 12-page document details the six key changes in how the street counts should be conducted which were put forward in the earlier consultation report. The bulk of the document details how to carry out these counts.
Although Shapps's earlier comments implied the new guidance would come into effect in 2011, the introduction states that "the new methodology should be used for carrying out counts and providing estimates from October 2010".
But aside from coming into immediate effect, there are few other surprises in the new guidance; and although it aims to gather figures to "provide a complete picture of rough sleeping levels across England", critics will say it doesn't go far enough to address the inaccuracies that dogged the old system.
The six main changes to the method of counting readers who sleep out are:
1. It is now up to local authorities to decide whether they conduct counts. Previously they were required if a council estimated they had more than 10 rough sleepers in their area. The guidance states "counts are no longer required by Communities and Local Government (CLG)."
2. Following on from this, if councils do not conduct a count, they "should submit a robust estimate" of the numbers of rough sleepers. Later in the document it states this should be done on a day "between 1 October and 30 November each year."
3. The definition of 'rough sleeper' and who to count has been broadened, to address old criticisms that only those 'bedded down' were counted. The new guidance includes "people sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments). People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or 'bashes')."
4. These new methods also suggest "neighbouring authorities to count on the same night and to count on a sub-regional or regional basis to avoid missing (or counting twice) rough sleepers who move back and forth between local authority areas." Again, this is based on old criticisms that counts in one borough pushed people over boundaries for the duration of the count.
5. It is now recommended that counts should start later (after midnight) and states: "it is sensible for counts to start at 2.00am in cities and towns so as to ensure that rough sleepers who bed down later in these busier areas are still counted."
6. Importantly, the "CLG will no longer provide officials to attend and oversee that counts are being conducted in accordance with the agreed methodology." The responsibility for provision of verifiers has been given to Homeless Link, the umbrella charity for many homeless services, which has also been charged with publishing detailed guidance on its website.
Generally, most of these measures will be welcome, although many readers and organisations will question whether making counts optional and using estimates helps build trust in official figures.
Alison Gelder, director of Housing Justice, which offered recommendations within the consultation, told The Pavement: "I am really disappointed that local authorities are being let off the hook by making counting a choice. I hope the detailed guidance on providing a 'robust' estimate will be good enough and I wonder how CLG will test the robustness of the estimates."
However, she added: "I am pleased that the definition of rough sleeper has been expanded, though sad that shelter residents will not be included where shelters are open at the time of the count, and the guidance about neighbouring counts being carried out on the same night and varying start times all seems sensible. "[Housing Justice] expects to be invited to help Homeless Link provide volunteer independent verifiers - and it remains to be seen how many counts actually take place."