Rough sleepers are subjected to a “shocking and unacceptable” level of abuse by the public, including physical violence, sexual assault and theft, research has found.
The study by the homelessness charity Crisis found that street sleepers were almost 17 times more likely than the average person to have been a victim of violence, and 15 times more likely to have suffered verbal abuse.
Eight out of 10 rough sleepers reported being victims of a range of crimes and antisocial behaviours, from vandalism and intimidation to being hit, kicked, threatened or urinated on.
One in 20 rough sleepers reported having been the victim of a sexual assault while homeless.
The majority of the abuse was perpetrated by the public, and in more than half of instances the victims said they did not bother to report their experience to the police because they expected no action to be taken.
“Violent and abusive experiences can cause not only physical harm but can also undermine people’s attempts to seek help and move on from homelessness. Too many rough sleepers are left living in fear and isolation,” said Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of Crisis.
“The research shows that urgent action is needed by both the police and government. It is not acceptable that homeless people are put in harm’s way on a daily basis. The police must act to reassure homeless people that their safety is paramount and crimes against them will be fully investigated.”
Street sleepers told researchers the abuse tended to be random, mainly from strangers who were often in gangs or drunken groups. They reported being kicked in the head, having their sleeping bag burned, being urinated on, having stones thrown at them, and being called “dirty scumbag and scrounger”.
Some interviewees said they felt it was safer to bed down away from public areas, for example by sleeping on night buses, although one noted he had been assaulted in a quieter spot which did not have have CCTV cameras, and “this wouldn’t have happened” in town.
The study cites research published earlier this year by the St Mungo’s charity which estimates that a quarter of the 97 people who had died while sleeping rough in England over the past five years had suffered a violent death.
The research was undertaken in response to growing concern among homeless charities about the treatment of rough sleepers. The study surveyed 458 recent or current rough sleepers in England and Wales.
Female rough sleepers were proportionately more likely than males to be the victims of violence and intimidation, sexual assault or verbal abuse and harassment.
The research was published as Crisis opens its centres on Friday to around 4,000 homeless people for the three-day festive period, offering companionship and hot meals.
Rough sleeping has increased in England in recent years, with 3,569 sleeping out on any one night in 2015, according to official estimates. This is a 30% increase on the previous year, and double the levels of 2010. However, in London, where a separate and more robust counting mechanism is used, more than 8,000 people were recorded as rough sleepers in 2015-16.
A spokesperson for the Local Government Association said: “Faced with rising demand, wide-ranging welfare reforms and falling social housing, councils are struggling to tackle the nation’s growing homelessness crisis.
“The government needs to give councils the powers and funding to resume their historic role as a major builder of affordable homes and to address the widening gap between incomes and rents. This is vital to end homelessness.”
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