Homelessness – understanding the
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.
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
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 longer term housing from the
state, whilst someone on the street sleeping rough may not be entitled to longer
term 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 longer term housing, towards only those
individuals who are eligible for assistance because they are in ‘priority need’
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 – July to September Quarter 2014 show that there were
60,940 households in temporary accommodation on 30 September 2014. This is 6% 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.
13,900 households were accepted as homeless between July 1 and September
30, 4% higher than during the same quarter of 2013.
Of these, 74% are families or pregnant women. In contrast only 2% are
people eligible for longer term housing because of old age.
The most common reason for becoming homeless was the end of an assured
shorthold tenancy at 29%. This is a big rise, nearly doubling, from the same
quarterly figures back in only 2010 which showed only 15% becoming homeless due
to the end of an assured shorthold tenancy. They are mainly first time rather
than repeat applications of homelessness as most local authorities are still
discharging their duties by offering social housing – 66% of households were
provided with settled accommodation by accepting what is known as a ‘Part 6’
offer of a tenancy in local authority or housing association accommodation.
This is 5% down on the same quarter in 2013. 360 households accepted offers in
the private rented sector which local authorities have been given government
permission to use in recent years.
Parents, relatives or friends being no longer able, or willing, to
accommodate the person accounted for 26%.
In a further 17% of acceptances, the reason for homelessness was the
breakdown of a relationship with a partner, 70% 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. (210 of the 13,900
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% during 1991.
The same set of statistics show that 5,060 ‘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 longer term housing
(i.e. they were not in a priority group). A further 2,220 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 longer term 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.
15,260 or 25% of households were housed in temporary accommodation in another
local authority district. This is an increase of 29% from the 11,860 or 21% of
households in temporary accommodation in another local authority district at
the same date last year.
14,420 or 93% were from London authorities. This is an increase of 29%
from the same date last year when 10,940 such households were in London.
This last figure may well be one of the first firm pieces of evidence to
show the impact of the Coalition Government welfare reforms – the housing
benefit cap alongside the London property bubble makes it difficult for councils
in the more expensive parts of the capital to house families and forces them to
3. Rough sleeping figures
Rough sleeping figures are collected through local authority street
counts and estimates. All 326 local housing authorities across England provided
Street counts were undertaken by 49 local authorities where it was believed
that the local rough sleeping problem justified counting and estimates were
provided by the other 277 local authorities.
The street counts and estimates represent a snapshot of the number of
people sleeping rough on a single night.
The autumn 2014 total of rough sleeping counts and estimates indicates a
total of 2,744 people. This is up by 330 (14%) from the autumn 2013 total of
2,414 and 55% from 1,768 in 2010 when the first equivalent count took place.
London had the largest number of rough sleepers at 742, which accounted
for 27% of the national figure.
The number of rough sleepers in London has increased by 37% from 543 in
Autumn 2013, compared to an increase of 7% in the rest of England.
Thames Reach has gone on record to query some of these estimates and
whether they accurately reflect the situation on any one night. They may well
be over estimates – 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 an estimate of 38 people by
the local authority in Canterbury for any one night, which seem particularly
high, bearing in mind snapshot figures in London are approximately only 10% of
the annual total.
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 and other services set up to help those sleeping rough. The
number of rough sleepers found by outreach teams on London’s streets has
increased by 1% over the past year.
6,508 people were seen
sleeping rough between April 1 2013 and March 31 2014 compared with 6,437 for 2012/2013.
A 1% increase. It comes on top of a 13% increase when comparing 2011/12 and 2012/13
and a 43% increase between 2010/11 and 2011/12.
These increases have
happened however at a time when street outreach services have been expanded and
a new No Second Night Out strategy was introduced to the capital in April 2011.
In total, outreach teams
and other services helped 2,452 people off the streets into accommodation
during the year.
In the past year, 70% of
new rough sleepers were only seen once, indicating services were getting to
many people sleeping rough very quickly and the No Second Night Out strategy
was proving successful.
The figures were released
in the Street to Home CHAIN annual report collated by St Mungo’s 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 164 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.
Over half, or 54% of the
total of rough sleepers, were non UK nationals with Central and Eastern
Europeans making up 31% of the total.
13% or 837 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 11 people under 18 or less than 0.2% of the total were found by outreach
teams. 3,715 or 57% of London's rough sleepers were aged between 26-45 while ten
per cent or 635 of London’s rough sleepers were over 55.
The number of UK ex armed services personnel is often the subject of
media interest and yet figures showed 127 individuals, making up only 3% of the
total on the streets. 337 non UK individuals had experience of being in the armed
services however, making up 7% of the total.
3c Quarterly figures
Quarterly reports are also issued from the
information gathered on the Chain database indicating how many people slept
rough on London’s streets during the period.
During the period October 1 – December 31, 2014,
2,565 individuals were found sleeping on London’s streets. This is a 13%
increase on the total figure for October 1– December 31, 2013. It is however
down 5% from the July 1 – September 30, 2014 figure of 2,704.
1,262 people were recorded as sleeping rough
for the first time, which was 17% up on the 1079 figure for the same quarter
last year but 15% down on the total figure of 1,456 for July – September 2014.
905 or 72% spent just one night sleeping
The number of long term rough sleepers deemed
to be living on the streets was 423 and is 1% lower than the same period last
year, but 7% higher lower than the immediately preceding period of July – September
The number of intermittent rough sleepers –
those not new to the streets but without enough contacts with outreach teams to
be deemed to be living on the streets – was 907. This is 12% higher than the
same period last year and 3% higher than the immediately preceding three month
During this timescale 655 rough sleepers were booked into
accommodation or helped to return home, an increase of 14% over the previous
quarter’s figure of 576. 447 were found and booked into the No Second Night Out
44% of rough sleepers from London’s streets
were from the UK and 56% were from overseas. 34% were from Central and Eastern
Europe including 15% from Romania.
The support needs of the people seen sleeping
rough by outreach services showed 46% had mental health issues, 44% had issues
with alcohol, almost invariably super-strength lagers and ciders, 31% had
issues with drugs, primarily heroin and crack cocaine, and only 25% didn’t have
one of these support needs.
4. Hostels – first and second stage
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
According to Homeless Link, which
produced ‘Support for Single Homeless People in England Annual Review 2014’,
there are a total of 38,534 bed-spaces in 1,271 hostels and second stage
accommodation across England. London has the highest number of projects in
total with 199 and the most bed spaces with 10,216. London also has the highest
rate of bed-space provision with 123 bed spaces per 100,000 population.
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):
60,940 households in temporary accommodation (September 30, 2014)
74% of acceptances are people with dependents or pregnant women
The main reason for a person or household becoming homeless was the end
of a shorthold tenancy (29%)
Nearly 20,000 people annually are found to be homeless but not in
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 composed of street
counts and estimates indicated 2,744 people slept rough on any one night in
England (Autumn 2014). This is up by 330 (14%) from the autumn 2013 total of
2,414 and 55% from 1,768 in 2010 when the first equivalent count took place. Doubts
are emerging over some of the estimates as some councils may have
misinterpreted the need to estimate the figures on any one night, and returned
higher figures reflecting a longer timescale.
A mixture of street counts and estimates indicated 742 people slept
rough on any one night in London, accounting for 27% of the national figure.
6,508 different people slept rough over a year in London (April 1 2013-March
During the period October – December 2014, 2,565
individuals were found sleeping on London’s streets. This is a 13% increase on
the total figure for October – December 2013. It is however down 5% from the
July – September 2014 figure of 2,704.
10,216 hostel and longer-term bed-spaces in London
38,534 hostel and second stage accommodation bed-spaces in England
At least 75,000 individuals use hostels over a year
Updated February 26 2015.