The StreetLink homelessness hotline and app is touted by the government as the most effective way for members of the public to help rough sleepers. However, only 5 percent of over 100,000 rough sleepers identified through StreetLink referrals ended up in accommodation, according to new figures covering 2012-2017.
A new review of StreetLink – an app and phone-line that is supposed to help people connect rough sleepers with services to help them – conducted by the charity Crisis found that while 87 percent of outreach teams have a "positive impression" of StreetLink, only 33 percent of rough sleepers agree, with over half viewing it in a negative light. Similarly, 90 percent of outreach teams say the system is "quick and easy", but only a third of rough sleepers feel the same way.
Outreach workers responding to the StreetLink self-assessment say the app has "helped Joe Public feel as though they aren't completely helpless and can do something. However, we feel that the referrals received often aren't particularly useful." In some cases, it has falsely "raised expectations of what help can be provided as we have no outreach services".
No one is saying it is easy to help rough sleepers into housing. But the assessment chimes with what current and former rough sleepers and grassroots homelessness activists told VICE: that StreetLink and the No Second Night Out programme – which is aimed at first-time rough sleepers – are at best ineffective, and at worst can actively endanger rough sleepers by framing them as unwilling to engage with services, meaning they are denied access to support in the future.
66-year-old Richard Curtis has been on the streets for decades, and was discharged from hospital onto the streets during the recent freezing cold spell, despite suffering from chronic stage IV chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. After one emergency cold-weather shelter closed, he trekked across London to a centre near Brick Lane, which remained open.
"I told them about my health and that I’m street homeless," he tells VICE. "But to get in I’d need to be found by StreetLink on the streets… I was told I had to go back on the streets so I could come back. That’s crazy."
Rick Henderson is Chief Executive of Homelessness Link, which operates Streetlink. He tells VICE: "Sending an alert via StreetLink is the most effective action you can take, and is the first step towards helping end someone's rough sleeping for good, by linking the person up with local support services."
But former rough sleeper Jon Glackin, who now works with activist group Streets Kitchen, disagrees: "It doesn’t work – ask any group on the streets," he says. For entrenched rough sleepers, any barrier to accessing services can prove insurmountable, and there are several practical issues with the StreetLink system itself.
Streets Kitchen have found that the phone lines are frequently down or divert to answer phone, particularly during cold spells. VICE recently stood in the street in Camden with a heavily-pregnant woman and her husband with the temperature close to zero and heavy rain pouring down, waiting for over an hour to connect to StreetLink. The couple were eventually told to walk an hour back to where they had left their bedding, where the woman alone would be collected and offered a bed – if she agreed to be separated from her husband.
As in Curtis' case, referrals can only be made when an individual is already on the street, leading to absurd situations like when a rough sleeper sitting in McDonalds was refused assistance as he wasn’t technically on the street.
The authors of the StreetLink assessment couldn’t determine if the app is actually helping more rough sleepers off the streets. However, "it is apparent that outcomes of 'person not found' have been growing over time, which suggests that StreetLink is not effective in terms of initially locating referrals".
Even when people are found, the outcome is not always beneficial. The 41 percent "positive outcome" category recorded by StreetLink encompasses the vague "other action taken", those who aren’t visited because they’re begging at an "identified hotspot", and many who are "already known" to services.
"If [rough sleepers] refuse a single service offer they can't access our service anymore, and several other services," a frontline worker told Crisis. Another worker said that "if [rough sleepers] don’t accept the offer that we’re giving them, ultimately they are going to get woken up by the police every morning and moved".
But sometimes there are perfectly good reasons for a rough sleeper to reject services.
"I looked around everyone coming in and out [of the hostel] on [synthetic cannabis] Spice – I was on Spice at the time – and I thought, 'This won’t do me,'" rough sleeper Will tells VICE. "I got the tram back to everyone else. I was still outside, but the gaff wasn’t somewhere I’d want to be. It’d make me worse.
A StreetLink referral can therefore land rough sleepers in hot water – "if you refuse their one and only offer you can’t access services as you are removed from [London homelessness database] CHAIN", as Glackin says.
This general hostility is compounded by the No Second Night Out Programme, which places a focus on "reconnecting" rough sleepers with their local area through a “single service offer” – sometimes a positive step, but often inappropriate.
“You see people sleeping below the posters around town, [stating] homeless people get 30 quid for a return ticket to re-engage with their loved ones," veteran rough sleeper Chris Blaine tells VICE. "Yeah, 30 quid to return to the abusive circles they ran away from."
In general, as Crisis point out, "Limited availability of housing can undermine the effectiveness of NSNO, with accommodation shortages being particularly acute in London… some service users have praised the treatment received... Others, however, have been dissatisfied with the type and level of support received, refused offers of what they regarded as substandard accommodation, declined offers of reconnection, and/or returned to rough sleeping or sofa surfing.”
This problem is particularly acute for foreign national rough sleepers, who at a recent count made up over half of London’s rough-sleeping population, and for whom relocation can mean forcible deportation.
Portuguese rough sleeper Paolo worked in a Farringdon slaughterhouse for 18 years, before health problems forced him onto the street. He tells VICE he now "lives in parks to stay away [from people], sometimes one and sometimes another… I can get no help". He is fearful of any engagement with services, and says he wouldn’t want anyone to phone StreetLink on his behalf.
Last month it was revealed that homelessness charity St Mungos – who co-manage StreetLink and often respond to referrals – were co-operating with Home Office patrols hunting down migrant rough sleepers to deport. And if people can’t return to the home region they fled, they will be chalked up as having “no connection” to the local area and left to fend for themselves. In those circumstances, Blaine says, people will simply be "ASBOed out of the city centre".
This is supposed to have changed with this month’s introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act. Councils now have a responsibility to help all rough sleepers or people at risk of homelessness, and can’t send people away if they lack a local connection or are single adults previously considered to be "no priority need".
But the failings of StreetLink and No Second Night Out show this approach is insufficient. In Southwark, where the new Act was trialled, the local council had to top up the fund with £750,000 of their own cash. Southwark’s deputy leader, Stephanie Cryan, told the Guardian the Act was "the sticking plaster on the severed artery" of cuts to housing and social services.
StreetLink chief Rick Henderson agrees, telling VICE: "We welcome the Act… However, structural factors including a lack of affordable housing and welfare reform are driving an increase in homelessness and rough sleeping, and the majority of homelessness services are already operating at capacity."
The current government was elected with a manifesto commitment to "halve rough sleeping over the course of the parliament and eliminate it altogether by 2027". Rough sleeping is actually up at least 169 percent since 2010, and still rising. The number of rough sleepers has increased 13-fold in Manchester in that time period, and there are over 8,000 rough sleepers on the streets of London.
StreetLink has undoubtedly helped many people off the streets. But with its adverts demonising rough sleepers as frauds and criminals, the hotline also serves a clear PR purpose. The government has boasted about StreetLink "helping 4,000 rough sleepers off the streets". It becomes clear further down the press release that those 4,000 people were merely "offered support", rather than anything more concrete.
Statistics provided to VICE by StreetLink last week showed that 20 percent of referrals were "connected to services". But when we asked specifically for the accommodation figures, our request was denied. A few days later, they emerged with the publication of the Crisis report.
The government touts NSNO as a success story and chalks "reconnection" up as proof that a second night on the streets has been avoided, while skating over the fact that "no outcome information was recorded for 89 percent of domestic reconnections from London to another area within the UK".
In fact, the government is relying on quick-fix solutions and passing the buck to cash-strapped local councils, ignoring root causes in favour of a "heads-on-beds" approach which cycles rough sleepers through hostels – and can leave them shut out of the system altogether.