A Burnley pastor has warned that rough sleeping in the town is on the verge of becoming an epidemic with immediate action needed before the problem spirals out of control.
Pastor Mick Fleming's view sits in direct conflict with figures posted on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government website, which state that the official number of rough sleepers in Burnley is one.
However, Pastor Fleming said he knows at least 20 men and women who were currently sleeping rough throughout the town and that figure was only heading in one direction.
"This count is done in October/November time so another one is due soon," he said. "It is really difficult to get it right. When it gets to night time, these people don't want any trouble, most of them are using, so they go away and they hide.
"We know the spots though and we have identified 20 rough sleepers compared to the official 2018 figure which is one. That's a 2,000% increase in less than a year. And that's only 20 we know of. There will be more."
Pastor Fleming knows first hand the perilous predicament a lot of these people find themselves in.
From the age of 11 he battled drug and alcohol addiction, and experienced homelessness himself before what he calls a 'religious experience' seven years ago gave his life new meaning. Now 53, he boasts a theological degree from Manchester University and in March was ordained.
Shortly before his ordination, he started up the Church on the Street ministry in response to the rise of rough sleepers in the town.
The ministry has a regular church service every Sunday at Burnley's Gannow Community Centre and hold a recovery church meeting once a month in the town.
They also meet outside McDonalds in the town centre every Tuesday and Friday, from 1pm until 2-30pm, where they hand out food and drink to Burnley's impoverished along with help and advice.
"We saw that there were so many people begging and we wanted to go out and see what we could do. I went out with a pack of 20 fags, a suitcase with some clothes in and a flask and just came into the town centre. I sat with the guys that were begging, had a brew and chatted. What we pride ourselves on is the fact that we eat together, we drink brews together, we sit together, we're in it together. There is no separation.
"Rough sleeping has escalated in the last 11 months massively without a doubt. I put a lot of this down to the benefits system; universal credit seems to be playing a huge part. Then we've also got vulnerable people who are not be giving the chance to engage. They are going into some projects and in some cases are coming out worse."
Pastor Fleming told the Express that rough sleepers were part of a growing community within the town; a group marginalised by society whose plight has become so overlooked it is now invisible to many.
"The 20-odd people we have identified and the others undoubtedly out there; these are the people that fall through the net. It's a growing community that's getting bigger and bigger.
"People are sleeping in car parks, in abandoned buildings, sleeping in tents. It has become another community within Burnley. The numbers for a small town like Burnley are alarming."
Pastor Fleming believes one way of tackling the problem would be to open a night shelter where rough sleepers could be offered an unconditional room for the night.
"A night shelter would resolve 99% of rough sleeping overnight," he said. "Some may be too scared to go to night shelter but the majority of rough sleepers would use it. We'd be looking at a building with bedrooms and an en-suite in each room. People could turn up before 10pm and if you're semi-alright you get a bed. You can have a shower, a brew and a bed for the night. You get up in the morning; shower, toast and a brew and you're out for 9am.
"You're not trying to fix people, not trying to change their lives. This would be about giving them a bed and respite from the situation they're in. If people get their heads down for a bit it can help them become a bit more 'compos mentis' and then they may be able to go and get the right the help; start asking questions. At the minute they are just completely lost.
"It truly is frightening how fast it's grown in such a short pace of time. It is another world and people wouldn't believe it. People don't see it though. Seeing somebody sat down begging is the tip of the iceberg. I've had people - grown men - crying in my arms because they are so scared, petrified about what is going to happen to them. It is terrifying."
As well as his work with Church on the Street, Pastor Fleming also runs a Facebook page entitled 'Burnley Against Poverty' with the aim of promoting any sources of help available across the town.
"We're trying to make people aware of what is happening. A lot of churches do free meals, so we advertise that. We highlight different food banks. Any help that's out there and is free we advertise it on this page.
"We're trying to address the issue of poverty within the town. There are a lot of people wanting to do something and we're trying to bring them together.
"This is a local issue and we want local people to come and get involved. We're always looking for people to help. It doesn't have to be monetary; and by monetary I mean in terms of food and things like that. But is there somebody out there who can help somebody understand the benefits systems, someone who has two hours a week to help a person fill out a form or get a bank account? This kind of help could make a huge difference."
Partnerships are beginning to be forged. Earlier this year, pupils from Ridgewood Community High School made up sandwiches and alongside pastor Fleming and his Church on the Street team delivered them to those in need.
Altruistic alliances like this, pastor Fleming believes, could be at the cornerstone of combating the rise of the invisible class.
"We want to create more partnerships. Our door is always open and we would welcome any groups wishing to help us.
"We're not on the street just trying to feed people, we are there trying to care for them and this is unconditional. We don't care what you've done, we're going to help you the best we can.
"People just want to talk and it's not just addicts, there are vulnerable people who are lost who just want to talk. They want somebody to talk to and I guess that is the best therapy that we offer. We'll get a lot of people who are lonely, they may well be living in a house but that is what this is about; building a community. People in recovery, not in recovery; people who are Christian, people who are Muslim, people who are not; it is about coming together and helping each other.
"We're trying to move people out of this underground invisible community to another community where we are all equal. Hopefully we are on the way to doing this."
The 'Burnley Against Poverty' page can be found here.
Anybody wanting to find out more about the Church on the Street project can contact pastor Fleming on 07582776574 and email@example.com or Ryan Kilbride on 07562233117 and firstname.lastname@example.org.