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The Challenge of Defining Atlas Services

What we include in the Atlas – the challenge of defining homelessness services

What services do you see when you visit the Atlas of London’s Homelessness Services and how are they selected?

Find out more from LHF Atlas manager Becky Rice

Experiencing ‘homelessness’ means not having a secure place to live or losing your home. There are many forms of homelessness. They include living in temporary accommodation provided by a local authority under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2018, or hidden homelessness, for example, staying with friends or family as a temporary measure. The most extreme form of homelessness is rough sleeping which includes sleeping outside and, for example, on buses or in a stairwell.

The Atlas of London’s Homelessness Services focuses on mapping services for people who are in some way at risk of rough sleeping or being completely without shelter – so another way to describe this is people who are ‘roofless’.

The focus of the Atlas is services for people who do not have dependent children living with them, and who are usually not included in priority need groups as defined by the law. This ‘at risk’ group is often referred to as ‘single homeless people’. This definition can be helpful to those commissioning and designing services and it is used in some datasets. But is also seen as problematic by many since it implies people do not have a partner or children they are in contact with, and this is often not the case. In the Atlas we generally refer to ‘people at risk of or experiencing rough sleeping’.

With a complex issue like rough sleeping people don’t always fit into neat categories. So, for example, someone who is fleeing domestic violence may be at risk of rough sleeping as they do not know where to go at the point at which they leave their home. But they would be in priority need and owed assistance by a local authority. A group at particular risk of rough sleeping are people with restricted eligibility to public funds due to their immigration status. This can impact even those who are vulnerable, but with the right support and advice services can often be accessed.

The Atlas’s focus on services for ‘people at risk of or experiencing rough sleeping’ is both a weakness and a strength.

It is a weakness in that the Atlas doesn’t show the full range of non-homelessness services that people may need access to, for example, drug and alcohol services that are not targeted at people experiencing homelessness. But the strength of this more targeted approach is that our coverage of services that specifically seek to support people at risk of or experiencing rough sleeping is comprehensive and complete. With the resources that are available we would not be able to provide a full and accurate picture of a far wider range of services.

An important issue when thinking about how we define homelessness in the Atlas is the limitations of the data that are presented.

When we look at data on rough sleeping (the official street counts and estimates from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – DLUCH, and Combined Homelessness and Information Network – CHAIN data published by the Greater London Authority – GLA) there are further weaknesses.

Certain groups, including women and young people, are less likely to sleep rough in visible locations covered by outreach workers for reasons including personal safety. Many people who are ‘roofless’, for example those who are newly homeless or feel very vulnerable, often describe ways in which they deliberately avoid sleeping at night time or outside.

Those working with data on rough sleeping should be ever mindful that they only reveal part of the picture when it comes to homelessness, and even rooflessness. This impacts on the extent to which statistics on rough sleeping cover all of those who are ‘roofless’.

The Crisis Homelessness Monitor is a useful resource in this area as it seeks to estimate the total volume of homelessness in England using a variety of data sources and statistical techniques.

An area we often get asked about by those providing data for the Atlas, is young people services, and it’s a tricky issue.

Most boroughs will have young people’s accommodation pathway. This is largely accessed by people who are leaving care, are unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC), or are aged 16, 17 or 18-21. Local authorities have particular statutory duties towards this group.

However, other young people who are homelessness and at risk of rough sleeping also access this accommodation, for example young people who have nowhere to go following family breakdown. This is something that disproportionately affects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (or questioning) (LGBTQ+) young people.

If the Atlas included all young people’s services, it would distort the overall data on those who are not in priority need and/or at risk of rough sleeping. Some boroughs have large provision for young people. For example, some areas have more unaccompanied minors resident than other areas and will therefore have more accommodation for young people than other areas do.

To date, the imperfect position we take at Atlas is that if a project is completely or largely targeted then those who are not owed additional duties due to their status as care experienced or unaccompanied minors should be included. If a service is targeted specifically at young people facing rough sleeping (who are not care leavers or unaccompanied minors), we would include it even if it sits within a borough’s ‘young people’s accommodation pathway’ rather than being commissioned with other homelessness accommodation.

The Atlas team is always happy to discuss projects where a borough or organisation cannot decide whether it should be included.

A potential idea for the future is to create a new area of the Atlas specifically mapping young people’s accommodation as a separate dataset.

As always, we welcome feedback. You can get in touch with Becky Rice, LHF’s Atlas project lead, and Gareth Thomas, Homeless Link’s Atlas project lead, if you have views on this particular area or any other aspects of the Atlas.

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