When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the government announced £3.2 million in emergency funding for local authorities to move all rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless people into temporary accommodation. Each local authority allocation was based on the number of rough sleepers it reported in the autumn 2019 snapshot count.
Exeter’s performance in the count was poor: it reported the 25th highest number of rough sleepers among 316 local authorities in England, with a higher rate of rough sleeping per capita than Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester, as well as London boroughs including Southwark, Lambeth and Haringey.
The 2019 count also revealed that the south west was the only region to show a significant increase in the number of people sleeping rough. 490 people, 11% of the country’s rough sleepers, live in the south west, a 7% increase on the previous year. Exeter was one of three rough sleeping hotspots in the region, alongside Bournemouth and Bristol, which has the third highest numbers of rough sleepers the country.
Exeter was among the 83 local authorities in England targeted by the government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI) when it was launched in March 2018. The scheme is based on an earlier, similar initiative. It funds councils with the highest numbers of people sleeping rough to provide specialist services to help the most vulnerable people in society off the streets and into secure accommodation.
The scheme generated controversy. Sir David Norgrove, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said that subsequent government claims that the number of rough sleepers was falling should not be trusted until the government addressed concerns that some councils which had received RSI funding had underreported the scale of rough sleeping in their area after receiving money from the scheme.
Exeter was one of several local authorities identified in the controversy. It reported figures that showed that the number of rough sleepers in the city halved between 2017 and 2018, from 35 to seventeen.
Critics pointed at a change in methodology from using multi-agency estimates based on year-round work with rough sleepers to a single snapshot count on one night each year.
Exeter City Council has switched methodology several times since 2010. Snapshot counts have consistently shown lower levels of rough sleeping in the city than estimates based on year-round experience.
However, after switching from an estimate in 2017 to a count in 2018, and reporting a precipitous drop in numbers, the city also used a count in 2019, which showed the number of rough sleepers nearly doubling to return to just below 2017 levels.
The precipitous drop in 2018 may partly be explained by the opening of the new RSI-funded Magdalen Street night shelter just before the count took place, when 28 people slept there.
And the increase at the 2019 count may also be connected to just seventeen people sleeping at the shelter on that night, when 31 people were counted as sleeping rough.
The city council has received over £2.15 million under the Rough Sleeping Initiative and its Rapid Rehousing Pathway since 2018.
When it received its third allocation of just over £900,000 in January this year, it said: “Unfortunately Exeter recorded an increase in rough sleeping numbers during the recent autumn count so this funding is desperately needed to ensure that future numbers remain low.
“The funding will continue to support existing projects such as the night shelter and our housing first project and ensure that these vital projects are able to continue after April.
“Further details on how this funding will be used to tackle rough sleeping in Exeter will be released over the coming months.”
However, the persistently high number of rough sleepers in the city has prompted questions from opposition councillors about the use of this money.
Diana Moore, Green party councillor for St David’s, said: “Rough sleeping over the past year in Exeter almost doubled, with an alarming rise in women sleeping rough. We really need to understand the reasons for this rise and the effectiveness of spending by the Labour-led council.”
When asked whether the city’s rough sleeping strategy was working, a council spokesperson said: “Comparison based on official rough sleeping figures does not convey a full picture of regional or local issues and flow (sources of people at risk of rough sleeping) and does not reflect measures of success.
“Eighteen of the 31 persons had no identified local connection to Exeter at the time of the 2019 count.
“Under the RSI programme Exeter’s commissioned services have provided a total of 61 new accommodation units including night shelter bedspaces and independent tenancies for persons who were known rough sleepers or had very recent experience of rough sleeping.
“The council continues to work to develop further services to help increase accommodation units for rough sleepers. It also works alongside partner agencies to continue to prevent homelessness and reduce the risk of further people rough sleeping on the streets of Exeter.”
The relationship between rough sleeping and access to accommodation is complex. A council spokesperson said: “Not all persons found rough sleeping were actually homeless. Five had suitable accommodation available to them and a further ten were eligible to access the night shelter but chose not to at the time of the count.”
When asked whether the night shelter, which was then open only during winter months, was effectively suppressing the Exeter rough sleepers count, the spokesperson said: “It is likely that in the absence of additional safe, secure accommodation such as that provided by the night shelter, rough sleeper count numbers would be higher.
“However it is not necessarily the case that an increase would equate to the numbers using the night shelter as it cannot be assumed that all occupants would have otherwise slept rough.”
The government defines rough sleepers as “those sleeping or about to bed down in open air locations and other places including tents and make-shift shelters”. The definition excludes people in hostels or shelters despite such facilities often closing, as Magdalen Street night shelter does, every day before reopening in the evening to admit overnight guests.
It also says “the term ‘homelessness’ is much broader than people sleeping rough” which is borne out by the much larger number of people who are homeless than are counted as sleeping rough.
According to government figures, 267 households were homeless in Exeter at the end of last year, with 90 housed in temporary accommodation. This is in addition to the 31 people who were officially counted as sleeping rough in the city.
However a survey of the numbers moved into temporary COVID-19 accommodation under the government emergency scheme announced in March has suggested that official rough sleeping figures, based on snapshot counts, are far lower than the reality across the country.
It revealed that nearly 15,000 people were moved off the streets into hotels, B&Bs and other forms of self-contained temporary accommodation, nearly three and a half times the number counted at the 2019 snapshot.
Exeter City Council has not confirmed how much it received from the government’s £3.2 million emergency fund to move rough sleepers into temporary accommodation, but it has imposed a service charge on those who were moved into the Great Western Hotel beside St David’s station.
Diana Moore said: “The council’s emergency housing team did an incredible job getting everyone off the streets and into accommodation at very little notice at the start of the pandemic. During lockdown, the council helped people claim housing benefit and universal credit and community services have done an amazing job to provide other support and meal.
“This is really a positive start. But it was not reasonable for an additional surcharge on top of the rent to be imposed by the council after people had moved in. This is not an ordinary housing situation and this charge and any arrears should be cancelled.”
Kevin Mitchell, Liberal Democrat councillor for Duryard & St James and progressive group leader said: “I am very concerned by the decision to issue a service charge on our homeless individuals after they were housed in a local hotel. I feel this was a wholly unnecessary step at this difficult time.
“My progressive group colleagues and I have been pressing for a change of heart. I would also call upon the Labour administration to agree to work with members of all groups on the council, so that collectively we can agree an action plan to ensure that no one in our city is sleeping rough.”
Meanwhile a report leaked to Manchester Evening News revealed that the temporary accommodation funding has been quietly scrapped, although the government has said councils can use their share of the £3.2 billion coronavirus response funding that was announced in March and April to support rough sleepers.
When asked whether any of the £2.15 million Exeter City Council had previously received in RSI funding had been allocated to cover the costs of housing residents during the lockdown period, a council spokesperson said: “This is currently being explored with a view to assisting needs on a case by case basis with a primary focus on extending discretionary housing and maximising move-on into more stable housing wherever possible.”
Diana Moore, whose ward includes the Magdalen Street night shelter, said: “A significant amount of the RSI funding has been spent on the night shelter, but with the risk associated with COVID-19 it will need to have a much more limited capacity, if any role at all.
“The priority must be to break the cycle of supporting people to sleep rough or in the hostel and ensure the next move is into long-term sustainable and affordable homes, with the necessary support, to help people cope and recover from their experiences on the streets.”
Emma Morse, Labour party councillor for Mincinglake & Whipton and Portfolio Holder for Supporting People, was asked about the matters raised in this story but did not respond.