Homelessness – understanding the statistics
Explaining the world of homelessness to supporters, funders and friends is an important task for everybody working with homeless people and there are two frequently asked questions which, understandably, arise time after time. These are:
a) What are the reasons for people becoming homeless?
b) How many homeless people are there?
This article covers the second of these questions. We have all taken part in confusing conversations about the homelessness statistics. Measuring the size of the problem is not a simple exercise and the different figures referred to can often lead to the listener feeling baffled and bewildered.
Hopefully this article will go some way in clarifying the figures that are frequently used, as well as illuminating the ones that are rarely mentioned.
2. Statutory homeless figures
The confusion starts because often the first reference point is government statistics. The United Kingdom has a highly unusual safety net for people who become homeless, which is not simply based on the notion of rooflessness, or literal homelessness.
A piece of research by the University of York  illustrates how our safety net is one of the most comprehensive in the world. In practice, homelessness legislation in this country means that a person can be in temporary accommodation and entitled under law to permanent housing from the state, whilst someone on the street sleeping rough may not be entitled to permanent housing from the state.
 An International Review of Homelessness and Social Policy (2007)
The important piece of legislation is the Housing Act 1996 (Part 7) which places a statutory duty on housing authorities (councils) to provide assistance to people who are homeless but a main duty of homelessness, that is, an obligation to re-house into permanent accommodation, towards only those individuals who are eligible for assistance because they are in ‘priority need’ groups.
The priority need groups include households with dependent children, a pregnant woman, 16 and 17 year-olds, 18-20 year olds previously in care, people who are vulnerable because of a disability or age and others who are vulnerable as a result of being in care, custody, in HM forces or having to leave home because of a threat of violence.
The statutory safety net works very successfully where the proof of statutory rights is easy to establish; e.g. where you are required to prove that you have dependent children. It is less helpful where you have to prove not only circumstances, but vulnerability.
For example a person with a physical disability has to prove that their disability makes them vulnerable ‘so that they may suffer in a situation where another homeless person would be able to cope without suffering’. A process of assessment is required to ascertain vulnerability and this is carried out by the local authority to which the person has applied.
The government provides quarterly homelessness statistics for England. The most recent statistics – October to December 2013 show that there were 56,930 households in temporary accommodation on 31 December 2013. This is 7% more than at the same date last year but still much lower than in 2004/5 when numbers peaked at around the 100,000 mark.
Of these, 73% are families or pregnant women. In contrast only 2% are people eligible for permanent housing because of old age.
The most common reason for becoming homeless was because parents, relatives or friends were no longer able, or willing, to accommodate the person (29%).
In a further 17% of acceptances, the reason for homelessness was the breakdown of a relationship with a partner, 72 % of these cases involving violence.
The quarterly figures indicate only 2% were accepted as homeless because of mortgage arrears and through possession of their homes. (240 of the 12,890 households accepted during the quarter.) The proportion of acceptances due to mortgage arrears has remained much lower than the peak in the last downturn: 12 per cent during 1991.
The same set of statistics show that 5,190 ‘households’ approached councils for assistance with housing and were found to be homeless; that is, they were not entitled to occupy, or could not be expected to remain in, their accommodation. However, a main duty of homelessness was not owed by the local authority and therefore the applicant was not eligible for permanent housing (i.e. they were not in a priority group). A further 2,230 applicants were considered to be homeless and to be in priority need.
However, they were deemed to be ‘intentionally homeless’ and therefore there was no requirement to find them permanent housing. Intentionality arises where it is deemed that the person or household has deliberately done something that caused them to leave accommodation that they could otherwise have stayed in. The usual reasons are non-payment of rent or anti-social behaviour.
Households in temporary accommodation in another local authority district to where they requested help grew 23% over the year, with the figure rising to 11,860 from 9,670 at the same date last year.
Of the 11,860 accommodated in another local authority district, 11,180 were from London authorities (94% of the England total.) This is an increase of 6% from the same date last year when 10,479 such households were in London.
3. Rough sleeping figures
Rough sleeping figures are collected through local authority street counts and estimates. All 326 local housing authorities across England provided a figure.
Street counts were undertaken by 48 local authorities where it was believed that the local rough sleeping problem justified counting and estimates were provided by the other 278 local authorities.
The street counts and estimates represent a snapshot of the number of people sleeping rough on a single night.
The autumn 2013 total of rough sleeping counts and estimates indicates a total of 2,414 people. This is up by 105 (5%) from the autumn 2012 total of 2,309 and 37% from 1,768 in 2010 when the first equivalent count took place.
Thames Reach has gone on record to query some of these estimates and whether they accurately reflect the situation on any one night – some towns have estimated higher figures than those reported by councils conducting street counts in well-developed urban areas with well established and higher levels of homelessness support services.
This could indicate some local authorities have misinterpreted the Government’s guidance and are not estimating the number of on any one night but across a longer timescale. Examples of this include estimates of 35 people from the local authority in Colchester and 22 for Canterbury for any one night, which seem particularly high, bearing in mind snapshot figures in London are approximately only 10% of the annual total.
Meanwhile, the unitary authorities of Derby, Slough and Bedfordshire have estimates of 47, 30 and 26 respectively.
London had the largest number of rough sleepers at 543, which accounted for 22% of the total. This percentage is probably an underestimate once the misinterpretation of government guidelines for counting by other areas is taken into account.
It does however indicate a 3% drop on last year’s total, coming down from 557.
3b Annual figures
Annual figures for rough sleepers show a greater problem. Rough sleepers move or are helped off the streets and new rough sleepers come onto the street. Over a year, the figure is therefore much larger.
In London a database called CHAIN compiles information on all the rough sleepers who are met by street outreach teams. The number of rough sleepers found by outreach teams on London’s streets has increased by 13% over the past year.
6,437 people were seen sleeping rough between April 1 2012 and March 31 2013 compared with 5,678 for the previous year. It comes on top of a 43% increase in 2010/11.
The figures were released in the Street to Home CHAIN annual report collated by Broadway which records the work undertaken by charities such as Thames Reach, which runs a series of outreach teams operating across the capital.
The report also showed that only 3% or 197 of the total of rough sleepers in the capital were seen in all four quarters of the period indicating that efforts to help people living on the streets were successful.
The number of people who were only seen once on the streets was 3,255, rising from 70% to 75%, indicating the success of the No Second Night Out strategy in London.
Just over half, or 53% of the total of rough sleepers, were non UK nationals with Central and Eastern Europeans making up 28% of the total.
12% or 786 of the total people sleeping rough were female.
Recent reports about youth homelessness weren’t backed up by the CHAIN annual report which indicated that only six people under 18 or less than 0.1% of the total were found by outreach teams.
3,708 or 58% of London's rough sleepers were aged between 26-45 while nine per cent or 581 of London’s rough sleepers were over 55.
As you will have grasped by now, most rough sleepers will not find their way into the statutory homeless figures.
4. Hostels – first and second stage accommodation
Apart from households in temporary accommodation and rough sleepers there are also people living in hostels who are perceived by many to be homeless, even if they do have a roof over their head.
Direct access hostels are defined as first stage accommodation and are often the first place that a rough sleeper will be referred to by an outreach worker. The aim is to help people with their problems and to move on after six to twelve months. Second stage accommodation offers specialist support to homeless people as they aim to get their lives back on track.
The number of people who use hostels over a year is very difficult to estimate as the level of bed-space ‘turnover’ would need to be established and this is almost impossible to do on a national basis with any reasonable degree of accuracy.
According to Homeless Link, which produced Homeless Watch: Survey of Needs and Provision 2013, there are 11,155 bed-spaces in hostels and longer term accommodation in London. In England there are a total of 39,638 bed-spaces in hostels and second stage accommodation.
Turnover in hostels varies greatly, but it is reasonable to assume that at least 75,000 different individuals use hostels over a course of a year. Again, hostel residents are unlikely to show up significantly in the statutory figures. Some hostel residents will also have slept rough so could be ‘double counted’ in the rough sleeping figures, but other hostel residents will never have slept rough.
5. ‘Hidden homeless’
The broader the definition given to ‘the homeless’, inevitably the more speculative becomes the figures given for the number of homeless people. One commonly quoted figure is the number of hidden homeless, meaning that group which is not entitled to accommodation because they are not deemed by councils to be in priority need, yet have no accommodation that they are entitled to occupy or can reasonably continue to occupy. The hidden homeless figure is usually given as 400,000 but should be treated with caution.
Firstly, it includes rough sleepers and hostel residents, for whom a separate figure is given, above.
Secondly, it raises a bigger issue about how far someone can be defined as homeless simply as a consequence of their physical situation. For example, the hidden homeless figure includes people who are forced to stay with family and friends for a period and are reliant on continued goodwill to sustain this arrangement (‘sofa surfers’). Should everyone in these circumstances be regarded as homeless? Some argue that there is a big difference between, for example, a sofa surfer with few prospects and a crack habit and a sofa surfer who can, if necessary, fall back on parents with a good income and expect to find a well paid job in the near future without too much difficulty.
6. Summary of statistics
Statutory homelessness (England):
56,930 households in temporary accommodation (December 31, 2013)
73% of acceptances are people with dependents or pregnant women
The main reason for a person or household becoming homeless is that relatives or friends are no longer able to accommodate them (29%)
Approximately 20,000 people annually are found to be homeless but not in priority need
Approximately 8,000 people annually are found to be homeless but not entitled to housing as a result of being intentionally homeless
The Government rough sleeping figures for England indicated 2,414 people slept rough on any one night in England (Autumn 2013). Doubts are emerging over some estimates where some councils may have misinterpreted the need to estimate the figures on any one night, and have returned higher figures from a longer timescale
A mixture of street counts and estimates indicated 543 people slept rough on any one night in London
6,437 different people slept rough over a year in London (April 1 2012-March 31 2013)
11,155 hostel and longer-term bed-spaces in London
39,638 hostel and second stage accommodation bed-spaces in England
At least 75,000 individuals use hostels over a year
Updated March 2014