Government figures show the number of people sleeping on the streets of Southend has tripled in 12 months but leading homeless charities have called it merely a “snapshot” of the real picture.
Data published by the Government shows that the number of rough sleepers in Southend has jumped from 11 to 32 in a single year.
However, the count was undertaken over a single night in November with volunteers walking to known “hot spots” in the town.
Jackie Bliss, chief executive of HARP, Southend’s homeless charity, admitted that the real numbers could be much higher.
“Whilst 32 people were found to be sleeping rough on this night, we know that over half of the 1,232 people that used HARP’s services in 2019 had a history of sleeping rough,” she said.
“The picture is ever-evolving, but what is clear is that there is a continued need for innovative solutions to the housing crisis.”
The method of counting over a single night was introduced by the government last year and when Southend undertook their first count, finding just 11 rough sleepers in 2018, the government ranked the town as among the ten most improved areas in the country.
A year earlier using the previous method of estimating based on charity data and council intelligence, the number was 72.
The new counting method is now used by the government to assess the scale of rough sleeping across the UK and is considered why forming official policy.
Zoey Smith Co-founder of One Love Soup Kitchen in Southend said that in reality the number of people sleeping on the streets of Southend is likely to have reduced due to positive work by the council but even those solutions have only been short-term.
“There is still more austerity, more people being made homeless, more people on the poverty line and on brink. The Government has just changed the way they are counting,” she said.
“The government is putting loads of money into rough sleeper initiatives and messing about with figures to make it look like spending money better.
“This count does not consider anyone in a squat, anyone sofa surfing, anyone put up for one night in a shelter or in hospital for a night.
“It is just not very accurate.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called the UK-wide numbers, which show there are 4,266 sleeping on the streets, “too high” but Ms Smith added: “They think the problem is huge based on this – if the true figure came out, I think they would realise we are in some kind of epidemic, we are in a crisis.”
Council leader Ian Gilbert (Lab) said: “The rough sleeper count provides us with a ‘snapshot’ of what is happening on one specific night in our town. And whilst the number has risen, thanks to the ongoing intelligence provided by our outreach teams it is actually a lot more reflective of what we know to be happening on the streets of our town.
“The longer outreach teams, navigators and case workers are in place, the more we are learning about what our borough needs in terms of provisions to prevent people from sleeping rough.”
Mr Gilbert has made housing one of his top priorities since becoming council leader in May last year and in the latest budget, which was approved last week, an extra £9.5million has been set aside to boost the council’s social housing stock by buying private properties.
Plans are also underway for a major redevelopment of the Queensway Estate and the Labour leader has said he hopes up to 400 of the 1,700 homes created in the scheme will be priced at the same level as social rent.
It will also re-home people currently living in four of the run-down tower blocks into safer properties.
He added: “We are aware, like most areas within the UK, there is a housing shortage in Southend, which is why the new administration has budgeted £9.5million over the next three years to continue buying private property to turn into new council housing to ease the pressure on our housing waiting lists.
“Plus the council own over 100 units of temporary accommodation.”
Despite the development efforts, the housing secretary recently wrote to the council to pressure them to build more properties or face intervention from Westminster.
Polly Neate, Shelter chief executive, said: “The number of people sleeping rough remains well over double what it was in 2010.
“The Prime Minister rightly wants to end rough sleeping before the end of the parliament, but unless his government tackles the drought of genuinely affordable homes, homelessness isn’t going anywhere.
“You can’t put a plaster on a gaping wound. Serious investment in social housing is what’s needed.”