In the early hours of Tuesday 9 September 2008, volunteers coordinated by Christian charity Housing Justice counted 206 people sleeping rough in the London Borough of Westminster alone - highlighting the continuing seriousness of the capital's problem.
Official street counts are carried out at regular intervals by local authorities at the behest of Communities and Local Government, the Government department responsible for housing and homelessness. The purpose of rough sleeper counts is to compare the level of homelessness over time.
Churches and others sometimes carry out local street counts when the official count is lower than their day to day contact with street homeless people suggests.
The most recent official Westminster rough sleeper count took place in June 2008 and found 111 people.
Alison Gelder, chief executive of Housing Justice, said, “We thought it was important to carry out an independent impromptu street count ahead of the next official Borough of Westminster count. We don’t doubt the integrity of the official counters but we do believe that our volunteers have provided a true snapshot of rough sleeping in the borough – something that can act as a baseline for the official count.”
Sally Leigh, London coordinator of Housing Justice and lead organiser of the count, said, “Some of the most useful people on our team used to be homeless on the streets in Westminster. They guided us to find the places where people sleep at night. Their help was invaluable. We are also really grateful to the Simon Community for their help with maps and planning.”
More than 30 volunteers from Housing Justice, the Simon Community, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, ASLAN (All Souls, Langham Place), The Salvation Army, Finchley Churches Together Winter Shelter, CARIS Islington Churches Cold Weather Shelter, Open House Film Club and White Box Digital took part in the street count.
More than 30 Volunteers from Housing Justice, member churches and other organisations went out in pairs between midnight and 4.00am on the morning of Tuesday 9 September. All the main central London “hot spots” were visited by the volunteers.
There is sometimes debate about the accuracy of official rough sleeper counts. Independent observers, including many street homeless people themselves, report heightened police enforcement activity just before street counts, the dates of which are always kept confidential.
The Communities and Local Government website says: “Rough sleeping counts are conducted by local authorities in partnership with local homeless agencies. Street counts provide a useful snap shot of the number of people sleeping rough in a given geographical area on a single night. Single night counts may not capture the number of people who may have experience of sleeping rough over the course of a year but they enable progress to be measured over time and across regions.” http://www.communities.gov.uk/housing/homelessness/publicationsabouthome... 
The Simon Community also carries out a twice yearly independent street count in London (http://www.simoncommunity.org.uk/latest_news.php ).
Housing Justice is the national voice of Christian action to prevent homelessness and bad housing. It was formed in April 2003 by the merger of two long-standing housing charities, the Catholic Housing Aid Society (CHAS) and the Churches National Housing Coalition (CNHC). In January 2006 Housing Justice merged with UNLEASH (Church Action on Homelessness in London). Housing Justice brings together more than 60 years experience of working for change in the field of housing.