More than 28,000 people in the UK were recorded sleeping rough in 12 months, research by the BBC has suggested.
In England five times as many rough sleepers were seen by councils in the year than reported in official figures, which are a one-night snapshot.
Labour’s shadow housing secretary John Healey has called for an investigation into the government’s published statistics, calling them “misleading”.
The government said it was providing £500m this year to tackle homelessness.
It said it believed the official snapshot was a “good estimate” of rough sleeping “on a given night.”
New official figures will be released on Thursday but the data for 2018 showed 4,677 people slept rough in England on the one night the snapshot survey was taken, down 2% on the year before but 165% up on 2010.
However council responses to the BBC showed nearly 25,000 people were recorded sleeping rough at least once in England during the latest year on record.
The BBC asked councils for the number of individuals amid concerns raised last year that the official one-night snapshot did not give the full picture.
Mr Healey said he had written to the UK Statistics Authority to ask them to investigate the accuracy of the government’s statistics.
He said: “These figures expose the shameful scale of rough sleeping on our country’s streets.
“They also confirm that the government’s own published statistics are seriously misleading and an unreliable undercount of the number of people sleeping rough.”
What’s it like on the streets?
In Oxford there were 430 rough sleepers recorded during 2019, compared with 43 during the single night count. This meant the city had one of the highest rates of rough sleeping per household population outside London.
For the past 10 years Nancy Webb has been in and out of hostels.
“It’s dehumanising,” the 33-year-old said. “It chips away at you and, once you become homeless, you start to feel trapped and you’re going round in circles.”
Miss Webb said she had been attacked by other homeless people.
“I have been spat on and had drinks thrown over me and it is terrifying,” she said. “I always try and go somewhere hidden if I am sleeping out, but even then it’s scary because you don’t want to be isolated because that’s terrifying and you don’t want to be somewhere where people are going to be walking past you, because that’s terrifying too.”
Stephen Dare has recently been housed in a flat but said he spent most of the past decade homeless.
“I was soaking wet in my sleeping bag for nine years,” he said.
He wants to see quicker access to council housing for homeless people.
There are currently 2,645 households on the waiting list for council homes in Oxford, 1,023 of whom are existing tenants.
Jane Cranston, chairwoman of the Oxford Homeless Movement, said: “One of the things that shocked me is a lot of these guys coming in have got jobs, so they are homeless because properties are too expensive,” she said.
Councillor Linda Smith, deputy leader of Oxford City Council, said the number sleeping out on a single night had fallen 30% since 2017.
“There are obviously still too many people sleeping rough in Oxford, but the reduction shows the hard work that we and our partners have put in over the years,” she said.
The council is increasing spending on tackling homelessness from £6m a year to £7.4m covering beds, showers and meals as well as support for people negotiating with landlords and finding work.
It also plans to build 600 new council houses.
Why are the figures so high?
The government publishes figures for rough sleeping based on the numbers of people seen or estimated to be sleeping rough in each local authority in England on one night in autumn.
The BBC asked councils how many individuals they recorded sleeping rough at any stage in 2019 – whether they slept rough once or multiple times – and three quarters replied with figures.
Some councils, including Wigan and Doncaster, were unable to provide figures for the number of individuals over the year.
Even among those who did it was not possible to say how many of those recorded may have also slept rough in another area. This means some people may have been counted more than once.
In Wales the total was 599 rough sleepers but most councils referred to Welsh government statistics rather than providing full-year figures.
In Scotland the 2,800 recorded came mainly from housing applications in which people said they slept rough during the previous three months.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive only provided an estimate based on a single night snapshot, when it found 38.
In London councils referred to CHAIN, a database managed by the charity St Mungo’s with the latest full year figures covering 2018-19.
In 2019 the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) said it expected the government to “plan for better statistics on rough sleeping”.
A spokeswoman said the OSR “hopes to see the inclusion of improved guidance which clearly sets out the limitations of the current annual snapshot approach in England”.
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Where were the most rough sleepers recorded?
Central London has consistently had the highest number of rough sleepers. Outside the capital, Hastings recorded the highest rates of individuals per household population out of the councils that replied.
Hastings Council said it had halved the number of people sleeping rough on one night since 2018, down from 48 to 24. It said it had used government funding alongside its own money for initiatives including a team of health, mental health, substance dependency, social care and housing specialists providing support for rough sleepers.
Nottingham City Council said it knew of 795 individuals who slept rough between April and December 2019, compared with 30 on a typical single night.
Councillor Linda Woodings said the number of homeless people had “undoubtedly risen significantly” following funding cuts and welfare reforms, but rough sleeping in Nottingham was falling.
“Challenges remain around people unwilling to engage with us to access support available to them, increasing numbers of people arriving from elsewhere and with insufficient affordable housing,” Councillor Woodings said. “Also, while we are very successful at bidding for Government grants, it is still not enough to properly address the issue as it continues to grow.”
In Greater Manchester the number of rough sleepers fell by a third in 2019 but the region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, said despite “real progress” there were still too many people on the streets.
Rachael Robathan, leader of Westminster City Council, said: “These figures are a graphic illustration of what anyone visiting central London knows – that rough sleeping is running at unacceptable levels.
“Tonight in Westminster, up to 300 people will be bedding down in doorways and on the streets. We spend more than £7m a year in helping people find a life away from the streets and offer more than 500 bed spaces a night, but that isn’t halting the rising tide of people bedding down in central London.”
What are charities and councils calling for?
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “Rough sleeping is the most brutal form of homelessness but we still do not have a clear picture of how many people are forced to sleep on our streets throughout the year.
“While the current government statistics on rough sleeping are a useful snapshot, based on counting people seen on one night, this cannot hope to accurately reflect the real scale of the problem.”
The Local Government Association has called for the government to restore local housing allowance rates to cover at least the lowest third of market rents.
Housing spokesman Councillor David Renard said local authorities needed the power to start a “renaissance in council house-building”, adding: “Money allocated to councils is increasingly being spent on providing temporary accommodation, meaning there is less for other homelessness services.”
A Government spokesman said: “We’re committed to eliminating rough sleeping by the end of the Parliament and our efforts have already led to the first nationwide fall in a decade.”
“We’re confident our independently verified snapshot provides a good estimate of the numbers of people sleeping rough on a given night. This year we will give nearly half a billion pounds to councils and charities to support homelessness and rough sleeping services and get people off the streets for good.”
Additional reporting by Michael Race