The row over rough sleeper numbers drew fire from Brighton and Hove council leader Daniel Yates at a meeting this afternoon (Tuesday 12 March).
The Labour leader criticised a Conservative opponent, Councillor Robert Nemeth, for wasting council officers’ time to try to make a political point.
Councillor Yates made his remarks after an audit found that the method used for counting rough sleepers was officially acceptable.
It was called into question after it indicated a drop in the number of rough sleepers in Brighton and Hove from 178 to 64 over 12 months.
Councillor Yates said: “It is a disgrace that officers professional business has been dragged through the mud on the whim of a councillor who chose not to understand how his own national government told us how to change the count.
“There is not the slightest question of veracity. All there is is a lack of understanding from a person who has not come along now and is still casting aspersions online on this report.”
Councillor Nemeth and fellow Conservatives Mary Mears and Nick Taylor asked for the audit, citing Sussex Homeless Support campaigner’s Jim Deans figure of 140 rough sleepers in the city at the moment.
In their letter to Brighton and Hove City Council’s Audit and Standards Committee, they asked for an investigation.
They said that the numbers were “clearly wrong” and that as a result the council risked falling “into disrepute”.
The findings, presented in a report to the committee, were that in 2017 the official figure of 178 people sleeping rough was derived from an estimate. The method took data from various organisations and aimed to eliminate any double counting.
The official 2018 rough sleeping figure for the council was 64 people. It was a physical count compiled by outreach workers and volunteers who recorded the number of people bedded down in the city after midnight on Wednesday 21 November.
The council still compiles estimates from various organisations working with rough sleepers and the homeless.
Councillor Yates told the Audit and Standards Committee that data from St Mungo’s and other organisations working with the council gave a monthly picture of the number of rough sleepers without relying on the annual snapshot.
The figure is believed to be far closer to the number counted last November than the previous year’s estimate.
Green councillor Ollie Sykes said: “At the same time, the administration was happy to use these figures for the same purpose.
“Talking about homelessness in the city, we have to be honest that there is a problem as serious this year as it was last year.”
During public question time at the start of the meeting Mr Dean said that he was frustrated that the council had spent money on an audit report rather than saying that the snowy weather had an impact on the count.
In a question to councillors he said that the figures showing a 64 per cent drop in rough sleepers were a “slap in the face” for volunteers who support the homeless, as from his experience rough sleeping had increased.
He said that at 3am on the night of the count he was in Subway in West Street buying hot chocolates as many people were not aware that the council’s severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) was open.
Mr Deans is frustrated that people sleeping in cars, vans and on boats in the Marina were not counted.
He said: “It’s estimated there were over 100 people sleeping on boats in the Marina.
“In the morning there were people coming off the boats carrying bags.”
Mr Deans asked why people who are not sleeping in doorways or tents but in other unsuitable places, such as vehicles, were not included in the count.
Committee chair Conservative councillor Joe Miller said: “There are those rough sleepers on the street but with the weather problems there were people sofa surfing or using improvised means such as cars, vans and boats. We can all agree this is not suitable.”
The council said that the definition of a rough sleeper is defined by the government as someone sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments).
It also includes people in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, sheds, car parks, or “bashes”) as defined by the government but does not include people in vehicles.
Councillor Nemeth was not at the meeting but said afterwards: “Everyone in the rough-sleeping world knows that the supposed reduction is a fabrication.
“By falsifying figures like this, it just leads to people losing faith in the system.
“All councillors know that it was wrong to compare two completely different sets of figures to claim a reduction.
“Using count figures from the snowiest night of last year just adds insult to injury.”