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What Is Rough Sleeping?

Jul 12, 2022
3 min read
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The topic of rough sleeping is a complicated one. At Greater Change, we’ve got to know a lot about rough sleeping.  We have supported over 500 people, with over 70% finding homes. We also partner with many of the biggest names in the homelessness charity space as well as the government. 

What is the definition of rough sleeping?

There is no single definition. When counting the people rough sleeping, the UK government defines rough sleeping in the following way.

People sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the street, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments).

People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or “bashes” which are makeshift shelters often comprised of cardboard boxes).

The definition does not include:

  • people in hostels or shelters
  • people in campsites or other sites used for recreational purposes or organised protest
  • squatters
  • Travellers

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homelessness has described people rough sleeping as “people who are not in any accommodation and are literally sleeping rough, for example in doorways, parks or vehicles.”

The Cambridge dictionary defines it simply as: someone who sleeps on the streets because they have no home.

What is the difference between rough sleeping and homelessness?

When we talk about sleeping rough at Greater Change, we mean: someone sleeping in the open air, with no form of permanent shelter, because that is their only viable option.

Homelessness is a broader term that includes all those who have no permanent home: There are many different forms of homelessness. According to homeless charity Crisis, core homelessness includes: rough sleeping, people living in sheds, garages and other unconventional buildings, sofa surfing, hostels and unsuitable temporary accommodation such as B&Bs.

All forms of homelessness are dangerous, rough sleeping is perhaps the most acute.

All forms of homelessness are extremely serious, the average age of death is in the mid-40s. A study commissioned by Crisis found it to be 47. More recent statistics imply the average age of death is just 44.

As a rough sleeper, you are more likely to be a victim of violence and assault than the general population. This can lead to serious injuries and sometimes death, as well as further physical and mental health problems that affect your ability to escape poverty and homelessness.

How many people are sleeping rough?

Every year, homelessness agencies aim to count or estimate the rough sleeping figures of the number of people sleeping rough in what is called the street count.

In 2021 the national statistics for a signal night were 2440 rough sleepers who were counted and or estimated to be rough sleeping.

However, this does not represent all the people sleeping rough. This is because local services & councils are able to choose between the following methods to submit the number of people rough sleeping in their area:

  • A count-based estimate which is the number of people seen sleeping rough in the local authority on a ‘typical night’ - a single date chosen by the local government between 1 October and 30 November.
  • An evidence-based estimate meeting which is an evidence-based assessment by local agencies, leading to a single snapshot figure that represents the number of people thought to be sleeping rough in the local authority on a ‘typical night’ - a single date chosen by the local authority between 1 October and 30 November.
  • An evidence-based estimate meeting including a spotlight count which is the same as above, but with one of the evidence sources also including a street count, which might not be as extensive as the count-based estimate but has taken place after midnight on the ‘typical night’.

The count-based estimate will likely miss people rough sleeping, as plenty of rough sleepers don’t want to be somewhere exposed when they are sleeping. As such, 2,440 people is widely believed to be a significant underestimate of the total number of people rough sleeping.

It’s also important to note that this is the number of people rough sleeping on a single night. The number of people who have rough slept at some point within the past year will be significantly higher. 

Rough sleeping is dangerous and it can affect your health and life expectancy.

Sleeping rough is dangerous. It can be life-threatening, and it can affect your health and life expectancy.

If you don't have somewhere to sleep after a long day of work or school, it's common to make yourself as comfortable as possible in an abandoned building with whatever materials are available—blankets, cardboard, even mud if there's an open drain nearby. But this can have a severe negative effect on the physical health of rough sleepers.

Without proper access to hygiene facilities and clean water, infections such as skin rashes are common; many homeless people also contract hepatitis A from contaminated food or dirty water supplies (which may be caused by sewage overflow).

You're more likely than the general population to suffer from heart disease, cancer and respiratory illnesses—all of which increase your risk of death by 30%.

Why do people sleep rough?

There are many reasons why people sleep rough. These include:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Relationship breakdown
  • Coming out of care, criminal justice system (prison) or hospital
  • Loss of job or benefit
  • Substance misuse or mental ill-health issues

Other factors include:

  • Leaving the armed forces; Leaving care; Leaving prison or hospital.

Read Next

What to do if you see someone sleeping rough?

How to help someone sleeping rough?


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