Sadiq Khan has launched London’s first rough sleeping charter while warning of fatalities amid rising homelessness this winter.
It came as the mayor was criticised for presiding over a 24 per cent increase in rough sleeping across London since taking office. Mr Khan argued that the problem has national causes and has urged ministers to provide £20m in emergency funding.
Speaking at the charter’s launch in Waterloo, the mayor told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “This is a national crisis we’re now facing, that demands a national response. In the absence of that, we’ve got to do what we can.
“We’ve shown in the last few years the progress that can be made, taking 16,000 rough sleepers off the streets [since Mr Khan’s 2016 election], four out of five for good.
“My worry is, unless there’s more support from the Government this winter, we may see a further increase in rough sleeping and I fear people will suffer the consequences of that, including possible fatalities.”
More than 100 charities, faith groups, businesses and people with lived experience have helped to design and develop the charter. It sets out six key principles to which signatories have committed – for example ensuring that rough sleepers are safe from violence, abuse, theft and discrimination, and that they have the full protection of the law.
The mayor said rough sleeping in the capital is being fuelled by changes to benefit rules, rising rents, mental health issues, as well as victims of domestic violence having nowhere else to go.
“The other big one in the last year or so is non-British nationals,” he added.
“We’re lobbying the Government not to evict those in Home Office accommodation this winter, because unless they’ve got somewhere suitable to go to, they end up on the streets.”
Mr Khan was challenged on his record by Tory assembly member Keith Prince, who said: “We strongly support efforts to end rough sleeping and welcome today’s charter. But today’s announcement is a missed opportunity.
“The mayor did not announce any new policies or actions to tackle rough sleeping. The reality is rough sleeping has increased by 24 per cent under Sadiq Khan.
“A charter does not put a much-needed roof over the heads of those forced to sleep on our streets.”
While 8,096 people were recorded rough sleeping in the capital in 2015/16 – Boris Johnson’s final year as mayor – the figure was indeed 24 per cent higher in 2022/23, at 10,053 people. While numbers on the city’s streets were significantly reduced in the aftermath of the pandemic, they rose sharply in the last year.
City Hall points out that according to Government “snapshot” data, every region in England saw an increase in rough sleeping in 2022, not just London. The percentage rise in the capital was the highest however, jumping 34 per cent between 2021 and 2022, compared with an average rise of 23 per cent in the rest of England.
Mr Khan has more than quadrupled his rough sleeping budget from the £8.45m it was when he took office in 2016, to £36.3m in 2023/24.
Asked what concrete action he will be taking over winter to reduce rough sleeping, the mayor said: “We’ve got an announcement next week, which I’m not going to break the embargo and announce, but we’re doing a number of things.
“As it is, Londoners have been very generous in relation to donating over the last few years, but we know that when temperatures approach freezing, we’ve got to open up the emergency shelters, SWEP [Severe Weather Emergency Protocol].
“So we’re doing a lot of things already, over and above what we’ve done in the past, but we’ve got to be innovative about new things we can do to help rough sleepers.”
The mayor said that London requires an emergency package of £20m from the Government to provide the accommodation and support necessary in getting people off the streets.
Asked whether he believes ministers appreciate the scale of the crisis, he said: “I think the Government does understand there’s a rough sleeping crisis across the country. They must do, because they’re human beings. They’ve got some compassion, I know they do.”
He added: “The issue is persuading the Treasury and the Prime Minister to give this the attention it deserves…
“Governments in the past have done it. They’ve tackled rough sleeping and ended it.
“‘Cardboard City’ was around in the 80s and 90s, I saw it in the West End and Waterloo. It was got rid of because of Government policy.
“Actually, by investing in some of the preventative measures, it saves money down the road. So we’re trying to explain to the Government not just the humane argument, the moral argument, but the economic argument in tackling this issue.”
Commenting in response, homelessness minister and Kensington MP Felicity Buchan said: “We are determined to end rough sleeping for good and are working hand-in-hand with the homelessness sector and other partners to make sure people have a roof over their head but also have the support and encouragement to rebuild their lives.
“We have given councils £2 billion – including £188.2 million for London – to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, and in the capital are supporting 13 projects that provide services and emergency accommodation. Through our Rough Sleeping Strategy we will continue to work to not just to reduce rough sleeping but to end it completely.”
According to City Hall’s latest data, outreach teams recorded 4,068 people sleeping rough in London between July and September – a 12 per cent increase on the same period last year. Of that number, more than half – 2,086 people – were sleeping rough for the first time.It is thought that the 4,068 people recorded is the highest quarterly rough sleeping count in London outside of a pandemic since records began.