Croydon’s street population

By - Wednesday 27th January, 2016

Robert Ward goes datablogging again, this time crunching the numbers on our borough’s homeless people

Those of us of a certain age will remember Ralph McTell, best known for his song ‘Streets of London’. Still performing although now in his seventies, McTell, real name Ralph May, was brought up in Croydon.

I remember an interview some years ago in which it was claimed the original title was ‘Streets of Croydon’. I recall it as McTell himself saying it, although being of a certain age too, there’s a fair chance that I’m mistaken. His song, which tells of the wretched life of people living on the streets, came to mind recently when I chanced upon the statistics for Croydon.

The figures are gathered by a charity with funding from the Mayor of London. The full survey is published annually, most recently for 2014/15, with a limited survey coming out quarterly.

The fluidity of the street population is modelled by recognising three groups. ‘Flow’ are people who had never been seen sleeping rough prior to 2014/15, essentially new rough sleepers. ‘Stock’ were also seen sleeping rough in 2013/14, so have lived on the street for some time. ‘Returners’ were first seen rough sleeping prior to 2013/14, but were not seen during 2013/14, so have left but then returned.

At around one in three, Croydon has the highest proportion of black street sleepers in London

Figures are available for London as a whole, and Outer London, of which Croydon is a part. London figures show a steadily growing street population, increasing by a third in three years with no sign of a decline in the rate of increase. However the outer boroughs more than doubled over the same period. Croydon is even worse, showing an increase from 42 to 157, although with some sign of flattening out – it’s only increased by 2 from 2013/14.

The street population in the outer boroughs is roughly 80% ‘flow’, with the remainder split roughly 3:2 between ‘stock’ and ‘returners’. This ratio has stayed broadly constant over time. For Croydon in 2014/15 that translates to 21 people living on the street in a semi-permanent way, with 123 coming onto the street for the first time during the year and 13 returning, having been away for some time.

Croydon’s 157 people were almost 90% male and evenly spread across the 18 to over-55 ages. Only around 50% were UK nationals. Compared to the 2011 census they were less likely to be white, mixed race or Asian, but more likely to be black or Chinese/other. In fact, at around one in three, Croydon has the highest proportion of black street sleepers in London.

Croydon has less than half the London average of street sleepers from Central and Eastern Europe

The explanation can be found in national origins where Croydon has more than double the proportion of street sleepers originating from Africa of any other borough. London-wide data indicates they are predominantly from Somalia, Eritrea and Nigeria. The presence in Croydon of the Home Office asylum screening unit is a likely cause. In contrast, Croydon has less than half the London average of street sleepers from Central and Eastern Europe.

Other factors reported are experience of institutions such as the armed services, prison and care. Around 50% have this kind of experience with the majority of these having been in prison. In Croydon around 4% have been in the armed services, but from London-wide statistics these are likely to be more often foreigners, probably from countries where national service is more common than the UK. Poland for example only ended national service in 2008.

Regarding support needs, the figures are less reliable because almost 40% had not been assessed. Of those that were, around three in four had at least one of alcohol, drug or mental health issues. Many had more than one.

There are perhaps 25 people sleeping rough on Croydon’s streets on any given night

Looking more closely at how these people are being supported, by scaling the figures for Croydon we can estimate that of the 123 new rough sleepers, two thirds, or 82, only spent one night on the street. For the 41 ‘flow’ and 13 ‘returners’, London-wide figures would estimate only one or two would spend an extended period on the street. This would mean the Croydon street population on any given night would be perhaps 25.

The issue is primarily being addressed, with some success given so many do indeed not spend a second night out, through an organisation called No Second Night Out. Given that these are a group with complex needs, that is no mean feat. If you do see someone on the streets you can call them on 0870 383 3333 and they will help.

For a statistics geek, I was left with the impression that this is a rare case where there is more data collected, more frequently than we need. The street population has a high proportion of non-UK citizens, people with complex needs and who have a likelihood of having been in prison. There has been little change in these factors over time.

The statistics are cumbersome to collect and the main parameters like ‘stock’, ‘flow’ and ‘returners’ inherently require a long time frame to collect. What is needed is short term, easy to collect statistics that can tell us quickly how things are changing. Then we have a better chance of dealing with the problem more effectively. Otherwise, the words of Ralph McTell’s song will continue to have relevance, even forty years on.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Anne Giles

    How incredibly sad and this is supposed to be a civilised country.