Huge increase in number of London's homeless

By staff writers
November 3, 2008

A voluntary organisation working with homeless people has found several hundred rough sleepers in Central London, challenging estimates made by both Westminster Council and central Government.

The Simon Community found 263 homeless people sleeping rough in Central London - 194 of whom were in Westminster - shattering claims that the number of rough sleepers is falling.

Westminster Council's latest street count claimed the number of rough sleepers had decreased by more than 20% - from 89 to 69 - since March. But in the early hours of Saturday 1st November the Simon Community carried out its twice yearly headcount of people sleeping rough in Central London, and found three times that number - despite the cold weather.

The count was carried out in the 8 Inner London boroughs of: Westminster, City, Southwark, Camden, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Kensington and Chelsea and Islington.

The last count occurred in April 2008 when 165 people were counted sleeping rough in the same areas.

The Simon Community's count was carried out in the same way as official counts undertaken by government departments.

It is also only of those who were visible at the time of counting, and did not include those who sleep in parks, disused buildings or other places not accessible to those doing the count - meaning that the true figures will be even higher.

Campaigners say that the high numbers reflect the fact that there is still inadequate provision for rough sleepers, despite government protestations to the contrary.

In addition, the lack of any safety net for arrivals from the newer EU countries has swelled the number of street homeless, as they have no access to government funding and are therefore trapped in a cycle of homelessness and poverty.

The difference in the figures may be due in part to the fact that official figures only count people who have actually bedded down at the time they do their survey, as well as those who are in plain sight. A spokesperson for Westminster Council told Ekklesia that their count only covered "those persons who are actually found to be bedded down after midnight."

Westminster Council has also faced accusations from churches and others that it is using jet sprays to wash rough sleepers, and prevent them bedding down.

The controversial practice, known as “wetting down” or “hot washing”, was examined by the Centre for Housing Policy at York University.

Westminster is one of the few local authorities to use the deterrent. Some reports suggest cleaners are deliberately soaking people with hoses to force them away from problem areas.

In a statement given to Ekklesia, Cllr Philippa Roe, Westminster Council's cabinet member for housing, said: "When we, like all other local authorities, carry out street counts they are independently verified and an official from the Department of Communities and Local Government is present at all times.

"This is not the case with any other organisation, which carries out their own count.

"Street counts are only one aspect of our work to monitor numbers on the streets every day and help the most vulnerable in society. We commission a wide range of services to help each individual make a complete recovery and reach their full potential."

The Simon Community is an independent homelessness charity, which aims to break down the barriers between helping and those being helped. It's houses are homes, not hostels, with Simon's residents and volunteers living and working together as a community, and sharing in the decision making and running its projects. Former rough sleepers also take part in the counting process.

Their findings are supported by another organisation which includes a number of church groups. Two months ago Housing Justice volunteers found 206 rough sleepers in Westminster.

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