As Suella Braverman faces backlash from her own party over homeless 'lifestyle choice' comments, how big a problem is rough sleeping?

Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman arrives to 10 Downing Street in London to attend the weekly cabinet meeting on October 31, 2023. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)
Suella Braverman is under fire after suggesting that sleeping in tents on Britain's streets is a 'lifestyle choice'. (Getty Images) (DANIEL LEAL via Getty Images)

Suella Braverman is facing an ongoing backlash following her suggestion that pitching tents on Britain's streets is a "lifestyle choice" as she reportedly plans to crack down on rough sleepers.

The government has previously pledged to end rough sleeping by the next general election but is not on target to meet its goal, with the number of rough sleepers increasing for the first time in four years in autumn 2022.

Civil and criminal powers are currently in place for police and local authorities to use but the home secretary is reportedly planning to introduce legislation that would see charities fined for giving tents to rough sleepers.

Braverman's plans, and comments in which she suggested British streets could be "taken over by rows of tents", have sparked widespread criticism – including from her own party, with the Tory Reform Group calling her remarks "ill thought out policies which divide".

The Liberal Democrats said it was "grim politics" to "criminalise homeless charities", while housing charity Shelter said: "Living on the streets is not a 'lifestyle choice' – it is a sign of failed government policy."

Yahoo News UK breaks down everything you need to know about rough sleeping in the UK.

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What did Braverman say?

Writing on X, formerly Twitter, the home secretary shared an article from the Financial Times that suggested that the King's Speech could include plans to establish a civil offence that would see charities fined for giving tents to homeless people.

She wrote: "The British people are compassionate. We will always support those who are genuinely homeless.

"But we cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice.

"Unless we step in now to stop this, British cities will go the way of places in the US like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where weak policies have led to an explosion of crime, drug taking, and squalor.

"Nobody in Britain should be living in a tent on our streets.

"There are options for people who don't want to be sleeping rough, and the government is working with local authorities to strengthen wraparound support including treatment for those with drug and alcohol addiction.

"What I want to stop, and what the law-abiding majority wants us to stop, is those who cause nuisance and distress to other people by pitching tents in public spaces, aggressively begging, stealing, taking drugs, littering, and blighting our communities."

How many rough sleepers are there in the UK?

According to government figures released in February, the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in England in autumn 2022 was 3,069.

That was an increase of 626 people (26%) from 2021 and an increase of 1,301 people (74%) since 2010 when the 'snapshot' approach was first introduced, but marked a decrease of 1,682 people (35%) since 2017, the government said.

The figures suggested that while rough sleeping increased in every region of England compared to the previous year, increases were driven by a small number of areas – with over half the increase driven by 15 areas (5% of all areas).

The largest increase in the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough was in London, where there were 858 people in the latest figures compared to 640 people the year before. The figures suggested that nearly half (47%) of all people sleeping rough on a single night in autumn were in London and the south-east.

They also showed that most people sleeping rough in England are male, aged over 26 years old and from the UK.

A rough sleeping snapshot for autumn 2023 is expected to be published in February 2024.

Government figures on the estimated number of people sleeping rough on a single night in autumn in England since 2010. (
Government figures on the estimated number of people sleeping rough on a single night in autumn in England since 2010. (

What constitutes 'rough sleeping'?

Homelessness charity Crisis says rough sleeping is "one of the most visible types of homelessness".

It says: "Rough sleeping includes sleeping outside or in places that aren't designed for people to live in, including cars, doorways and abandoned buildings."

The government's website includes the following definitions:

  • People sleeping rough are defined as follows: People sleeping, about to bed down or bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments). People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or 'bashes' which are makeshift shelters, often comprised of cardboard boxes). The definition does not include people in hostels or shelters, people in campsites or other sites used for recreational purposes or organised protest, squatters or travellers.

  • Bedded down is taken to mean either lying down or sleeping.

  • About to bed down includes those who are sitting in/on or near a sleeping bag or other bedding.

What powers do authorities have to move rough sleepers on?

A Commons research briefing on enforcement powers relating to rough sleepers says: "Rough sleeping is often associated with nuisance activities such as begging, street drinking and anti-social behaviour."

It says the police and local authorities have a range of powers to tackle such activities, but points out that homelessness organisations are concerned that the use of such powers "criminalises rough sleeping and does not address the root cause of the problem".

According to the document, rough sleeping is a criminal offence under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended), subject to certain conditions. There is also an offence for "being in enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose", which is used, for example, when dealing with people suspected of burglary.

The number of prosecutions and convictions under section 4 of the 1824 act has declined in recent years. In 2019, there were 183 prosecutions and 140 convictions, with only 4 convictions being for the specific offence of 'sleeping out'.

Homeless person and their dog sleeping in a tent outside a shop on Tottenham Court Road with an advert for Cyberpunk in the window on March 11th 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (photo by Jenny Matthews/In Pictures via Getty Images)
There are various criminal and civil powers available for authorities to use around rough sleeping. (Getty Images) (Jenny Matthews via Getty Images)

Begging is also a criminal offence under section 3 of the act. In 2019, there were 926 prosecutions and 742 convictions for begging.

The document added that although the number of prosecutions and convictions under the act has declined, homelessness organisations have pointed out that the it is often used informally, to move individuals on or challenge behaviour without formally cautioning or arresting them.

Public bodies can also use powers under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to tackle anti-social behaviour, including civil injunctions, criminal behaviour orders, community protection notices, dispersal powers and public spaces protection orders.

But in 2017 the Home Office revised guidance for frontline professionals on the effective use of anti-social behaviour powers to make it clear that Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) should not be used to target people based solely on the fact that they are homeless or rough sleeping.

What does the government want to do about rough sleeping?

The government published its Ending Rough Sleeping For Good strategy in September 2022 in which it re-stated its 2019 manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by the end of this parliament.

But in September this year, the Kerslake Commission, a panel of 36 experts, said the government was not on target to meet its goal.

The government's Antisocial Behaviour Action Plan, announced in March, included proposals to provide police and councils with fresh powers to "address rough sleeping and other street activity where it is causing a public nuisance".

The plan said officers should be able to "clear the debris, tents and paraphernalia that can blight an area, while ensuring those genuinely homeless and with complex needs are directed to appropriate support".

A spokesman for the Home Office said: "We want to ensure our communities feel safe and secure.

"That's why, through our Anti-Social Behaviour Plan, we introduced a package of new measures to better equip the police and local authorities to respond to nuisance begging and rough sleeping, which can be harmful to individuals themselves and to the wider public."