Photo credit: Invincible....... via photopin (license)

Rough sleepers in parts of the country with the highest number of people sleeping rough are being denied the specialist mental health support they need, according to a leading homeless charity.

A freedom of information request by St Mungo’s, sent to health and local authority commissioners in 111 areas with ten or more rough sleepers on any one night, found that over two-thirds (68%) fail to commission specialist mental health services.

The investigation, which forms part of St Mungo’s ‘Stop the  Scandal’ report, follows earlier research that uncovered evidence of a mental health crisis among people who sleep rough on the streets of our towns and cities.

Four in ten rough sleepers need mental health support. Those with a mental health problem are more likely to spend longer on the streets.

The number of people sleeping rough on any one night in England has more than doubled since 2010, reaching a staggering 3,569 in Autumn 2015.

The charity, who have been supporting homeless people for more than 20 years, also interviewed 21 people with direct experience of sleeping rough, who revealed that many rough sleepers come to the streets with existing mental health issues. St Mungo’s warns that without adequate support, the mental health of these people is likely to worsen the longer they’re living rough.

Thirteen of those who took part in interviews had mental health problems before they slept rough and seven had a pre-existing mental health diagnosis. Even more worryingly, eight of those interviewed admitting to thinking about taking their own lives.

Some of St Mungo’s clients have now written to Jeremy Hunt, calling on the Health Secretary to attend an urgent meeting to discuss funding for specialist homeless mental health services.

The charity is also planning to hold a reception in Parliament to discuss the issue with MPs and Peers. Speakers at the event will include Local Government Minister Marcus Jones MP, Public Health Minister, Nicola Blackwood MP, and Shadow Housing Secretary, John Healey MP.

Howard Sinclair, St Mungo’s Chief Executive, said: “Rough sleeping is dangerous and ruins lives and people with mental health problems are particularly at risk amongst this group of very vulnerable people.

“It is a disgrace that in our developed country over 3,500 people sleep rough on any one night, and it’s likely that number will be even higher this autumn.

“Despite the mental health inequalities faced by people sleeping rough, most commissioners are not rising to the challenge with targeted mental health services.

“We know mental health services are extremely stretched but by focusing resources we can not only alleviate the human cost but potentially save money over the long term, if people receive the help they need at the time they need it.

“Our research indicates that four in ten people sleeping rough have a mental health problem. By any measure these figures are unacceptable. We urge the government to take action and produce a new, ambitious strategy to stop the scandal of people sleeping rough.”

St Mungo’s client representative group ‘Outside In’ has developed five principles that all services that work with people sleeping rough should adopt. They must be accessible, attentive, understanding, caring, and persistent.

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • The ministerial working group on homelessness should produce a detailed plan for improving mental health services for homeless people, including steps it will take to ensure specialist homeless mental health services are available in all areas with the highest levels of rough sleeping.
  • Local councillors and commissioners should ensure that there is a clear service offer for people who struggle to access mainstream mental health services, including specific provision for people sleeping rough, and should ensure the mental health system is integrated with housing and support services.
  • Health professionals, including GPs and mental health practitioners, should ensure they have a good working knowledge and understanding of homelessness and rough sleeping and should seek opportunities to work alongside people with lived experience of homelessness.

The charity has also called on Prime Minister Theresa May to commit to a new strategy to end rough sleeping, including funding to help councils deliver specialist homeless mental health services.

Chancellor Philip Hammond promised an additional £10 million for the ‘Rough Sleeping Fund’ over two years in the Autumn Statement last week, money which is aimed at supporting “innovative approaches” to reducing rough sleeping.

Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of homeless charity Crisis, said: “With rough sleeping having more than doubled since 2010, investment is needed now more than ever.

“However, the root causes of rough sleeping cannot be addressed without a change in the law and the funding to make it work. That’s why the Homelessness Reduction Bill, currently making its way through parliament, is so urgently needed.”

This article was last updated at 03:23 on 30 November 2016.