Money and Power Corrupt
Are homeless street counts honest enough?
Street count season is almost upon us. MHCLG is gearing up ready, as should local authorities be. The street counts are run by all local authorities between 1st October and the 30st November. Their purpose to show a “snapshot” of the numbers of people sleeping rough on the streets in a moment of time.
The key word here is “snapshot”, because that is all that it is. What the count has shown is that between 2010 [when first implemented] and 2017 rough sleeping rose by 169% and the following two years saw falls of 2% and 9%.
What it doesn’t show is how those figures can or are being manipulated or used for gain by local authorities or how they have become politicised.
I have been a rough sleeper, been working around rough sleeping for over 10 years and have been involved in to many street counts, even jointly leading on one. What I do know from my own experience is that it is a highly emotive subject.
What we could quote is “lies, damn lies and statistics” what is probably more accurate is “money and power corrupt”.
Now that’s a big statement, but one I am not alone in thinking.
Too often I have heard reliable stories of how the figures have been manipulated to suite he need of the local authority. Stories that include “police clearing city centres just before a street count”, “rough sleepers being given travel passes for the day and being asked to leave the city”, “provisions being set up to shelter people just prior to a count only to be returned back the street afterwards”, “doing street counts at the time of the day you are mostly likely NOT to find people sleeping rough but then later when walking past people sleeping rough but knowing that you can’t count them”.
We shouldn’t be so much horrified that this happens, because trust me it does. What we should be is curious and ask why. For that we need to think about risk and reward or more specifically what is the reward for local authorities that incentivises them to take such a risk? It’s difficult not to jump straight to power and money with that question.
Over time, access to Government money has been a reward for the figures that you have from your official street count. Sometimes LA’s have been rewarded financially for having low figures, ie” you are doing well, let’s give you more money so that you can continue to do well”. Other times LA’s have benefited financially for having high figures, “you have a particularly bad problem, we’ll give you some extra money to help you”.
So who could blame local authorities for not trying everything so as to bring in as much money as they can?
So what needs or could happen to stop this being such an emotive subject?
See and use the street count for what it is, a “snapshot” and detach reward from the figures. This will do two important things, de-incentivise any manipulation of the figures and more importantly give MHCLG and honest place in which to hold the Government account to from. That has to be a good thing doesn’t it?
The good news is that approximately ¾ of local authorities are signed up the Governments Rough Sleeper Initiative and as part of that they are asked to do bi-monthly counts. But all other local authorities along with their partners should have processes in place to measure the amount of rough sleepers in their areas. This will give a much fuller and better picture on which to base funding.
We could have a lot more transparency around when street counts are done. Which day(s) of the week and at what time was the street count carried out? Has a new provision just opened? What was the local police activity like just prior?
Doing this will bring with it the opportunity to qualify or rate the street counts and challenge areas that score below par.
Now I know that these are big asks, but if we want to end rough sleeping and create real change then we need to come from a place of honesty.
I would really like to hear your views, whether you’ve been counted, been a counter or even if you are a Local Authority Officer.