Research shows that many rough sleepers have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives

A staggering 4,751 people were counted or estimated to be sleeping rough by local authorities in England on any one night in autumn 2017. Riverside’s Executive Director for Care and Support, John Glenton, reflects on this depressing statistic and the perceptions versus reality of sleeping rough.

John Glenton, Riverside’s Executive Director for Care and Support, outside The Crossings in Hull
John Glenton, Riverside’s Executive Director for Care and Support.


Recently I have heard a number of people suggesting that rough sleeping is a personal choice and that some people opt to live on the streets – that they refuse help or offers of accommodation so therefore it is their choice.

However it is far more complicated than that. Ask yourself; who would make a conscious, informed choice to live with all the horrors that are associated with sleeping rough?

Throughout my career working to end homelessness, rough sleepers have told me about their experiences of being, among other things, urinated on, attacked and I have even read reports of rough sleepers being set on fire. It is astonishing that in 2018, the life expectancy of a rough sleeper is 47 which is 30 years less than an average person. Sadly, the longer a person sleeps on the streets both their physical and mental health will deteriorate.

So why do some people seemingly make this choice?

Research shows that many rough sleepers have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives leading directly or indirectly to their lives spiralling out of control, often this trauma occurs in childhood. Consequently 85% are in touch with criminal justice system, including services for substance misuse and homelessness because they have experienced trauma as a child. The effects of this can be compounded by the experiences of living on the streets which in turn can impact an individual’s self-esteem and self-worth and therefore lead to a sense of disempowerment.

Although entrenched rough sleepers can learn how to cope with life on the street, they often respond to person-centred support and intervention packages that are tailored around them and work at their pace. This helps them see that there are alternatives to the streets. So simply giving a person a set of keys to a property will often not work for all the reasons I have outlined.

When we look for solutions to an increasing and visible problem (rough sleeping has increased by 169% since 2010), let’s remember that previous initiatives have worked and helped reduce rough sleeping including No Second Night Out which is the concept of reaching rough sleepers before they become entrenched. This is not a lost cause and can be tackled with use of appropriate support and flexible solutions. It might be easier for society to believe that those people who we walk past in doorways are making a choice, I don’t believe this is the case.

In my experience former rough sleepers can make fantastic additions to the workforce and be powerful role models. At Riverside we have had great success with this approach in our award winning Street Buddies initiative. Street Buddies is a peer-led outreach service, helping entrenched rough sleepers to get off the streets. Our volunteers, themselves former rough sleepers, are trained in dealing with substance misuse, mental health issues and professional boundaries. As human beings most of us given access to support and the right opportunities have the ability to take control of our lives and achieve our ambitions. In my 30-year career, tackling and preventing homelessness, I know very well this can happen to anyone – indeed statistically many of us are only three months’ salary away from being homeless ourselves. So as temperatures drop it is important to remember that rough sleepers, often with complicated back stories, are someone’s father, mother, son or daughter…and they have not simply chosen to live on the street.