By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON, Jan 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The number of people sleeping rough in England fell in 2018 for the first time in a decade to 4,677, the British government said on Thursday, after pledging to end the problem by 2027.
Yet numbers were up 16 percent in England's three largest cities - Birmingham, Manchester and London - to a total of 1,497, with most rough sleepers living in the capital.
Despite the 2 percent fall nationwide, charities pointed out that rough sleeping was still 165 percent higher than in 2010, following eight years of rising homelessness, and called for more government action to address the root causes.
"It's a damning reflection of our society that night after night, so many people are forced to sleep rough on our streets – with numbers soaring in the capital," said Jon Sparkes, head of homeless charity Crisis.
"We know that with the right commitment, rough sleeping could be ended for good."
Almost 600 people died while homeless last year in England and Wales, nearly a quarter more than in 2013, according to official data.
In August, the government announced a 100-million-pound ($128 million) package to tackle rough sleeping, including funding for housing, mental health treatment and staff training.
Homelessness figures are an estimate, with local authorities carrying out street counts one night each year and collecting data on use of homeless services.
"Numbers do now seem to be stabilising, which is a rare piece of good news," said Polly Neate, chief executive of the charity Shelter, while also underscoring the need for major investment in social homes.
"While the government has embarked on some welcome initiatives on rough sleeping, you can't solve homelessness without homes," she said in a statement.
Earlier this month, a commission set up in the wake of London's Grenfell Tower disaster said Britain needs to build 3.1 million new homes in the next 20 years to solve its housing crisis.
The island has experienced a shortage of social housing since the 1980s when the government allowed tenants to buy their homes at rock-bottom prices without replacing the stock.
Since then, years of underbuilding, rising rents and cuts to social housing benefits have exacerbated the problem.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)