Reducing rough sleeping: lessons from Greater Manchester’s A Bed Every Night programme

In this blog, Dr Beth Watts discusses the findings of a recent evaluation of Greater Manchester’s A Bed Every Night programme.

Greater Manchester’s A Bed Every Night programme was introduced in November 2018 to help prevent and reduce rough sleeping. It emerged in the context of highly visible and dramatically increasing levels of rough sleeping, and a cold snap in early 2018 – the so called ‘Beast from the East’ – which focused minds on this worsening ‘humanitarian crisis’ like never before. With the new city-region Mayor Andy Burnham elected to office having pledged to end rough sleeping in Greater Manchester by 2020, the context was ripe for change.

ABEN provides low barrier access to emergency accommodation, combined with support to address wider needs, and help to access more suitable move-on accommodation. The programme was introduced without national funding, and in the context of years of budget cuts to local authorities. It specifically targets those not owed accommodation under homelessness (or other) legislation, or excluded from statutory temporary accommodation for other reasons, with an overarching aim of ensuring that no one has to sleep rough on the streets of Greater Manchester.

The programme has played a key role in achieving dramatic reductions in rough sleeping. According to annual national street homelessness enumeration exercises, street homelessness in Greater Manchester was 57% lower in November 2020 than in November 2017, the last count before ABEN was introduced. This reduction is considerably greater than the 43% drop seen nationally, and notably, the bulk of the reduction in the city-region happened before the COVID-19 ‘Everyone In’ homelessness response which have been credited as the primary driver of these national falls.

Trends in local authority rough sleeper estimates in Greater Manchester & England, 2010-20

In our recent evaluation ABEN Eval Summary Report I-SPHERE, we argue that three key components of ABEN have been crucial to it’s effectiveness in reducing and preventing rough sleeping:

  • the provision of low barrier access to accommodation for groups previously lacking shelter options due to long-term gaps in statutory services, including those with No Recourse to Public Funds;
  • a changed mindset among relevant partners in the city-region, that is less tolerant of rough sleeping among those owed no statutory entitlements; and
  • the high profile of the programme – politically, publicly and among key partners – that is seen to have created buy-in and momentum across wider public services.

Nationally-funded Rough Sleepers Initiative outreach services have played a very important complementary role, helping ‘pull’ those on the street into available accommodation.

Our evaluation does suggest, however, a number of ways in which ABEN could further improve its effectiveness in reducing and preventing rough sleeping. These include: addressing enduring gaps between existing services (that mean those leaving prison, for example, can end up sleeping rough), ensuring effective out of hours access, and ‘verification’ procedures that do not necessitate or lengthen rough sleeping episodes. Especially important in our view is addressing the endemic use of eviction within ABEN services – an issue not specific only to ABEN but common across congregate emergency accommodation options targeting people who are homeless. Improving the emergency accommodation offer to encourage engagement among those reluctant to access hostels or other shared options and reduce occurrence of abandonment is also extremely important.

The evaluation also considered ABEN’s effectiveness in addressing the support needs of those it targets. The picture here was mixed, reflecting enormous variety in the level, nature, intensity, regularity and accessibility of that support, as well as in the support models deployed by particular services. While some ABEN users benefited from regular access to support workers with relatively small caseloads, others received only light touch support from case workers managing heavy caseloads. It is worth noting that ABEN support workers reported feeling sometimes overwhelmed by the breadth and intensity of support work required of them. It is for these reasons that we recommend the development of a GM-wide vision for ABEN support, which reflects international evidence on ‘what works’, and its implementation through staff training and capacity building. Effectively meeting the support needs of ABEN users, however, also requires improvements to wider health services and in particular to mental health provision which emerged as extremely hard to access by those experiencing homelessness.

We also argue that the kind of accommodation available to ABEN users has important impacts of people’s capacity to address their own needs and take up the support on offer. Shared and congregate forms of accommodation like hostels, which are common nationally and internationally, were highly detrimental to some people’s wellbeing, and undermined their ability to meet their own needs and engage with wider support services. This was sometimes because such accommodation lacked adequate and accessible facilities (to cook and do laundry, for example), but also because sharing accommodation with others led to daily hassles – and sometimes harms – that diverted energy and attention away from pursuing other priorities. Night shelter accommodation from which residents were excluded during the day (only one of which had reopened in Greater Manchester following the COVID-19 response) was especially damaging to people’s wellbeing and sense of self-worth, and presented a substantial barrier to their ability to access support.

Perhaps the most severe challenge facing the ABEN programme is its limited capacity to enable those accommodated on an emergency basis to access more suitable move on accommodation. Almost all ABEN users we spoke to want self-contained accommodation – a home of their own – but the obstacles to achieving this are substantial. Access to social housing for this group appears to be extremely difficult in some boroughs, and almost impossible in others. There are high barriers to entry for most ABEN users seeking access to self-contained PRS accommodation. While HMO style shared private tenancies are a – and sometimes the only – feasible move on option, they are rarely desirable for ABEN users, and acknowledged to sometimes be simply unsuitable by stakeholders. Housing First is recognised as highly effective, but access is highly constrained given the scale of current provision.

Drawing on the international evidence-base we make a series of recommendations to inform the future direction of responses to rough sleeping in Greater Manchester, focusing on the four themes: the need for swift action and assertive outreach; the effectiveness of housing-led responses; the value of individually tailored, flexible support; and the importance of a focus on poverty-alleviation, reintegration and assets. We also highlight a series of national-level changes that would maximise the potential of GMCA and the city-region’s local authorities to drive street homelessness down still further. The details can be found in the summary report here [i].

Stepping back from the detail, the main message from this evaluation of the ABEN programme is that levels of rough sleeping – and the associated human suffering – can be substantially reduced with public policy intervention. This message is clear from our analysis of trends in Greater Manchester since 2018, as well as the nation-wide Everyone In responses to rough sleeping seen in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The woeful record on homelessness seen across England in the post-2010 era need not, and must not, continue.


[i] The full report will be published later this year.