Why is rough sleeping on the rise in Wales?

The latest rough sleeper figures for Wales are a shocking confirmation of what many of us have suspected for some time now.

Anyone walking the streets of our cities and towns can’t fail to notice how many people are bedding down in the open air, even on the coldest nights of the year.

Everyone is talking about it. But until now we haven’t had any national data to tell us how steep the rise is.

The figures published by Welsh Government this week from their annual monitoring exercise suggest that rough sleeping has gone up 30 per cent in the space of a year, from 240 to 313.

It’s a much steeper increase than England’s, which at 16 per cent still made national news.

And it confirms what many service providers in Wales have been saying: the Wallich’s outreach teams have recorded consistent rises in the number of rough sleepers in all the areas they cover, apart from Bridgend, over the last three years.

We’re also seeing many more rough sleepers at Shelter Cymru – 568 in the last year, which is an alarming 63 per cent higher than the year before.

So what’s going on? Why is it that, despite the successes of our new homelessness legislation, and despite the Welsh Government’s long-term aim to end the need to sleep rough, more and more people are still experiencing street homelessness?

Our inability to tackle this problem partly stems from the inadequacy of our monitoring data. We simply don’t know enough about the extent and nature of rough sleeping to be able to fix it.

Officially, the stats from the Welsh Government’s monitoring exercise aren’t comparable from one year to the next due to differences in the way the figures are gathered.

For Government statistics, this simply isn’t good enough. What we really need is a year-round monitoring regime, supplemented with more in-depth work to learn from people sleeping rough about what they need.

We’ve made great progress in preventing homelessness in Wales over the last few years. But while our legal reforms have meant more people being successfully helped than ever before, people who are living on the streets are still falling through the net.

Our casework suggests that the causes are complex. Austerity and benefits cuts have certainly been contributing factors, along with a severe lack of affordable housing.

We have very little Housing First accommodation in Wales, which is often a better option for people with long-term mental health and substance misuse problems.

There are also issues with some of our emergency accommodation. Our clients often tell us they are too scared of conditions in there, and would rather sleep on the street. This might be one reason why the Welsh Government’s monitoring exercise found that 24 per cent of bed spaces were empty on the night of the count.

Sometimes rough sleepers aren’t even given the option of emergency accommodation. We regularly see clients who are sleeping rough and have been told by their council that they aren’t vulnerable enough to be classed as priority need – despite Welsh Government guidance saying that people sleeping rough ‘are likely to be vulnerable due to the health and social implications of their situation’.

Finally, there are not enough services out there that work flexibly and non-judgementally enough for people who are street homeless. We need more services that understand rough sleepers’ needs and can help them with employment and skills; money and benefits advice; and help to access and sustain tenancies.

Many of these factors are challenging to address, and some of them can’t be done by Wales alone. But we do have some things in our favour: good working relationships between agencies, a commitment to cooperation, and a good level of momentum from the recent successes of the homelessness legislation.

We don’t have big budgets for expensive research exercises, but we do have a shared will and determination to work together to end the need to sleep rough.

The scale of the challenge ahead of us is clear.