Blog: What works in addressing rough sleeping?

In the aftermath of calls for rough sleepers to be cleared from the streets of Windsor for the royal wedding, Sarah Johnsen and Jenny Wood from the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, and Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) at Heriot-Watt University highlight key conclusions from an international evidence review of ‘what works’ in addressing rough sleeping.

The recent furore surrounding calls for rough sleepers to be cleared from the streets of Windsor in the lead-up to the royal wedding is a reminder of the strength of feeling associated with street homelessness. In recent tweets and a letter to Thames Valley Police, Simon Dudley, leader of Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead council describes an ‘epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy’ which has led to ‘increased concerns from … residents about their safety’ and which ‘presents a beautiful town in a sadly unfavourable light’. He calls for the police to use legal powers, including the 1824 Vagrancy Act and 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, to address the problem prior to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s nuptials.

Mainstream media coverage documents objections from a number of national and local charities and police representatives whom all call for greater recognition of the reasons people sleep rough, their vulnerabilities, and/or the need for support provision. Prime Minister Theresa May, who is also MP for Maidenhead, has stated publically that she disagrees with the council leader’s statements, and that ‘it is important that councils work hard to ensure that they are providing accommodation for those people who are homeless’.  Together, these sentiments resonate strongly with those expressed after calls for increased use of enforcement in other contexts.

Objections to the use of legal powers are neither as universal nor as resolute as media coverage often implies, however. In fact, there is a growing (albeit not unanimous) consensus within the homelessness sector that use of  enforcement may be justified when targeted individuals are genuinely being antisocial, for example by begging aggressively or failing to dispose of human excreta or used hypodermic needles which compromise the safety of other people. Even then, the vast majority argue that such interventions should only be used as a last resort, after appropriate support services have been repeatedly offered and refused.

And here’s the rub. Despite significant public and/or charitable investment in responses to rough sleeping in the UK and other countries of the Global North, the support offered all too often fails to meet the needs of rough sleepers. A recent review of international evidence on the effectiveness of interventions addressing rough sleeping identified swathes of reports of street homeless people in the UK and elsewhere declining offers of support given prior negative experiences  – typically because they found the services available frightening, stigmatising and/or unable to meet their housing and other needs. This problematises the often heard assertion that people who sleep rough ‘choose’ to do so, as the alternatives are, for many, just too awful to contemplate.

Further to this, whilst the review identified many examples of good practice, it noted that the effectiveness of many services is stymied by factors outside service providers’ control, such as overly bureaucratic commissioning and referral processes, limited cross-sectoral working (between housing, health and criminal justice in particular), and/or a lack of affordable move-on accommodation.

There is also very little evidence assessing the effectiveness of some of the most common services available to rough sleepers, including most notably hostels, shelters, and reconnection schemes (the latter aiming to help rough sleepers without a local connection return to a ‘home’ area).  Moreover, some of those approaches that purport to be ‘evidence based’ (Common Ground being a pertinent example) are, quite simply, not (yet, at least).  In fact, to date the only intervention targeting rough sleepers which is genuinely well supported by evidence showcasing its effectiveness is Housing First.

The review concluded that current approaches to address rough sleeping in the UK are not as effective as they might (and need) to be. It emphasised the ongoing need to invest in prevention, and suggests that any new or reconfigured responses should be underpinned by five key principles, including imperatives to:

  1. recognise heterogeneity – of individual rough sleepers’ housing and support needs and their different entitlements to publicly funded support, as well as local housing markets and rough sleeper population profiles which also vary across the UK;
  2. take swift action – to prevent or quickly end street homelessness, thereby reducing the number of rough sleepers who develop complex needs and potentially become entrenched;
  3. employ assertive outreach – by actively identifying and reaching out to rough sleepers and offering suitable accommodation;
  4. be housing-led– offering swift access to settled housing; and
  5. offer person-centred support and choice – via a client-centred approach based on cross-sector collaboration and commissioning.

There is a role for the use of legal powers in very specific circumstances, but these should only ever be employed as a last resort when a rough sleeper is genuinely behaving in antisocial ways – never in the absence of or as a substitute for rapidly accessible, high quality, and individually tailored support. The safety and wellbeing of Windsor’s residents and visitors should be safeguarded, of course. There are few who would debate that.  Care should be taken, however, to ensure that the wellbeing (and aesthetic sensitivities) of residents and tourists are not given precedence over meeting the (potentially life-preserving) needs of those vulnerable rough sleepers occupying the same space.

The international evidence review report can be downloaded here.  It was commissioned by Crisis and was conducted by Peter Mackie from Cardiff University and Sarah Johnsen and Jenny Wood from I-SPHERE.

This article was first published by the I-SPHERE blog.