Thames Reach
Monday 26 January 2015
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Homelessness facts and figures

Homelessness – understanding the statistics

1. Background

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 [1] 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.

[1] 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 – April to June Quarter 2014 show that there were 59,710 households in temporary accommodation on 30 June 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.

13,140 households were accepted as homeless between April 1 and June 30, 2% lower than during the same quarter of 2013.

Of these, 75% 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 the end of an assured shorthold tenancy at 30%.

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, 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. (220 of the 13,140 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 4,850 ‘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 2,050 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 25% over the year, with the figure rising to 14,220 from 11,310 at the same date last year.

Of the 14,220 accommodated in another local authority district, 13,280 were from London authorities (93% of the England total.) This is an increase of 28% from the same date last year when 10,390 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 look elsewhere.


3. Rough sleeping figures

3a Snapshots

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. 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 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 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. 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 July – September 2014, 2,704 individuals were found sleeping on London’s streets. This is a 15% increase on the total figure for July – September 2013. It is also up 8% from the April – June 2014 figure of 2,479.

1,456 people were recorded as sleeping rough for the first time, which was also 19% up on the total figure for July – September 2013 and nearly 13% up on the immediately preceding three month period April – June 2014 figure of 1,268.

1,130 or 78% spent just one night sleeping rough.

The number of long term rough sleepers deemed to be living on the streets was 396 and is 2% lower than the same period last year, and 9% lower than the immediately preceding period of April – June 2014.

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 884. This is 18% higher than the same period last year and 5% higher than the immediately preceding three month period.

During this timescale 576 rough sleepers were booked into accommodation or helped to return home whilst 506 were found and booked into the No Second Night Out Assessment Centres.

45% of rough sleepers from London’s streets were from the UK and 55% were from overseas. 36% were from Central and Eastern Europe including 19% from Romania.


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):

  • 59,710 households in temporary accommodation (June 30, 2014)
  • 75% 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 (30%)
  • Nearly 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

Rough sleepers

  • 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
  • 6,508 different people slept rough over a year in London (April 1 2012-March 31 2013)
    During the period July – September 2014, 2,704 individuals were found sleeping on London’s streets. This is a 15% increase on the total figure for July – September 2013. It is also up 8% from the April – June 2014 figure of 2,479.


  • 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

Hidden homeless              

  • Estimated at 400,000


Updated November 2014.