One in five young people sleeping rough in the UK?

“Nearly one in five young people in the UK have been forced to sleep in dangerous environments – such as the streets, cars and night buses – in past 12 months because they had nowhere else to stay.”

That’s according to Centrepoint, a UK charity working with homeless young people, based on research commissioned from polling company, ComRes.

Fact checking organisation, Full Fact, found this figure surprisingly large. I expect most people would. Quite rightly Full Fact had a bit of a look at the figures, noting that “[the survey] could be picking up people who can’t get home on a particular night for a variety of reasons.” This is a point also made by the Metro newspaper, which said: “But the poll … does not make clear whether the figure includes those who have been stranded after a night out.”

Full Fact concluded that: “The survey is obviously touching on a wider issue which will concern Centrepoint and others, but the 18% figure doesn’t necessarily capture its scale.”

That may well be but I thought I’d dig a bit further and see if the numbers are consistent with other available data.

It’s useful that ComRes make the data available (pdf format, opens in new window). ComRes interviewed 2,011 young people aged between 16 and 25 in the UK online between the 13 October and 21 October 2014. They weighted the data in order to be representative of young people in the UK.

Everyone was asked: “Have you ever had to sleep in any of the following places because you felt you had nowhere else to stay?”

The places listed include cars, the streets, parks and tents.

Of the 625 who said they had were then asked: “Have you had to sleep in any of the following places because you felt you had nowhere else to stay within the last year?”

And the 378 who said that they had were further asked: “Please indicate the longest period of time which you have had to sleep in any of the places previously mentioned within the last year.”

This figure of 378 is just slightly more than 18% of the 2,011 who responded. That is, indeed, close to one in five. Though, to be pedantic maybe, it is closer to the lower proportion of one in six.

Now, there are a little more than 8 million people in the UK between the ages of 16 and 25 according to figures I got from the Office for National Statistics’ interactive web site. The Centrepoint research would suggest that 1.5 million have had to sleep in one of the places – car, bus, squat, street etc – because they felt they had nowhere else to stay in the last year.

Very crudely speaking that suggests around 4,000 different young people ‘sleeping rough’ every night of the year.

As mentioned above, Full Fact have noted that we don’t know the reasons why these people said they felt they had nowhere else to stay. Two-fifths of these young people said that the longest period they had to sleep in one of the various places was one night. It’s not clear if Full Fact feel this meant just one night in the whole year. The question does give room for ambiguity. In any case, from knowledge gained when I was a local councillor, I would be sure that there is a good number of young people for whom it was one night on more than one occasion.

In their article, Centrepoint criticise the lack of definitive official statistics. To be fair, there is data available which we can work with.

There is, for example, the Rough Sleeping Statistics  for England (pdf, opens in new window). For Greater London there are reports from the ‘Combined Homelessness and Information Network’ (CHAIN) (pdf, opens in new window). There are reports such as those from Crisis (pdf, opens in new window), the UK charity working with single homeless people. And there is the document from the House of Commons Library on rough sleeping in England (pdf, opens in new window). There are bound to be documents that cover the other nations of the UK.

Looking at these documents, estimates of the numbers of people rough sleeping on any one night seem to be in the region of 3,000 in England. Scaling proportionately for a UK figure would give a rough figure of 3,500 on any one night.

This is less than what we might estimate for young people sleeping rough on any particular night (4,000) based on the Centrepoint figures. It’s important to note that the official figures can be difficult to collect or estimate. So are these figures inconsistent?

As Centrepoint note, there is no reliable age breakdown of rough sleepers at the UK level. However, CHAIN do have figures for Greater London, suggesting about one in ten were under 25 years old. The House of Commons Library’s document has a figure attributed to the Social Exclusion Unit of 25% (one in four), though that was way back in 1998. Roughly splitting the difference at 20% of rough sleepers being under 25 years old, this suggests that of the 3,500 homeless people on any one night about 700 are young people. This is some way off 4,000.

We could take a highly optimistic view that those reporting their longest period of having to sleep ‘rough’ as being one night is due to nothing more than mishap. This still leaves around three in five for whom the period was longer – of the rough estimate of 4,000 that’s around 2,500.

Whatever the figure, it does seem that there are possibly hundreds, if not thousands of young people finding themselves having to sleep ‘rough’ each night.

According to the Independent newspaper, Centrepoint’s director of policy feels that the issue of young homelessness is so serious that schools should start educating children about the dangers of rough sleeping.

While it is right to make sure young people in school do have this sort of information, it’s worth a look at the figures across the ages. The table below is of the numbers who felt that had nowhere else to stay in the last year.

Age: 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25
Number: 10 8 14 33 42 40 53 58 61 59

The numbers are clearly higher for younger people in their twenties than they are for the 16 to 18 year olds. Of course, those who are older could well be more likely to fail to get home through mishap, and so inflate the figures. But while Centrepoint put forward a figure of 18 per cent rough sleeping among 16 to 25 year olds, the data indicate that the proportion could be quite a bit higher for those aged 21 to 25.

However you look at it, the survey has provided useful data. A problem exists and to tackle it we need the best evidence possible. There is clearly a need for better official statistics on homelessness and rough sleeping.

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