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Saturday, 4 August, 2001, 00:31 GMT 01:31 UK
Fall in numbers sleeping rough
Homeless people in London
Rough sleepers are just part of homelessness problem
By BBC social affairs reporter Branwen Jeffreys

The number of people sleeping on the streets of England has been slashed dramatically, according to the latest Government figures.

Three years ago there were almost 2000 people sleeping rough in England.

The squalor of people living on pavements made homelessness a high profile political issue. In the latest national estimate the number sleeping on the streets has now fallen to 703.

Sleeping rough 2001
703 long-term rough sleepers in England
357 of those in London
Sleeping rough 1998
1,850 long-term rough sleepers in England
621 of those in London
In a progress report the government's Rough Sleepers Unit says the fall is due to a more focused approach, offering the homeless better help with drug and alcohol addiction, and mental health problems.

More effort is also being put into preventing people at risk of becoming rough sleepers.

Teenagers leaving care, and men leaving the armed forces or prison often end up the streets.

The more strategic approach, and the fall in figures have been welcomed by charities working with the homeless.

But they are also warning that those sleeping on pavements are only one small part of the homelessness problem.

They now want to push for the same political commitment to dealing with people often described as the hidden homeless - those living in hostels or dismal bed and breakfast accommodation.

'Zero quality of life'

Shaks Ghosh from charity Crisis said: "This is the beginning not the end of solving the problem of homelessness.

"We're very worried about what will happen next. We have to find ways of helping people with zero quality of life in hostels and B&Bs."

The Rough Sleepers Unit is on its way to meeting the target of reducing rough sleepers by two thirds by next year.

The question is what will happen next.

Louise Casey - head of the unit, often called the homelessness Tsar, says they are aware of the broader problems.

"A lot of people weren't convinced we'd ever get to a stage in this country when there wouldn't be human beings sleeping in our doorways...we're sixty percent there.

"This government is as committed to the wider issue of homelessness as it is to rough sleeping."

'Hard to escape'

However, it will become harder to continue to bring the numbers of rough sleepers down. For some it becomes a way of life that traps them in poverty and despair.

James Townsley has been on and off London's streets for more than a decade.

He is now in a hostel, but his experience is a reminder that this is a complicated problem.

The main challenge for James is to avoid going back to living rough.

"It's quite easy to turn around again at any point I know that because it's happened before.

"It's not easy to get yourself up and running again.

"Out of a 100 people who maybe get a hostel with a similar background to me maybe I reckon about thirty or forty percent will make it."

The BBC's social affairs reporter Branwen Jeffreys
"Taking more people off the street will be difficult"
Rachel O'Brien of the homelessness charity Shelter
"It's really welcomed news"
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