Homelessness – the numbers
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 paper 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 paper 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.
provides quarterly homelessness statistics for England. The most recent
statistics – July to September Quarter 2012 England – show that there were 52,960
households in temporary accommodation on 30 September 2012. This is 8% more
than at the same date last year but approximately half of the numbers seen in
2004/5 when numbers peaked at around the 100,000 mark.
Of these, 73% are
families or pregnant women. In contrast only 1% 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 (31%).
The quarterly figures
indicate only 2% were accepted as homeless because of mortgage arrears and
through possession of their homes. (310 of the 13,980 households accepted
during the quarter.)
The same set of
statistics show that 4,910 ‘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 2,200 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.
temporary accommodation in another local authority district to where they
requested help grew 34% over the year, with the figure rising from 6,850 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 a figure.
Street counts were undertaken
by 46 local authorities where it was believed that the local rough sleeping
problem justified counting and estimates were provided by the other 283 local
The street counts and
estimates represent a snapshot of the number of people sleeping rough on a
The Autumn 2012 total
of rough sleeping counts and estimates indicates a total of 2,309 people. This is
up by 128 – 6% – from the Autumn 2011 total of 2,181.
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 figures of 25 people for Colchester
and 26 Chichester for any one night, which seem particularly high, bearing in
mind snapshot figures in London are approximately only 10% of the annual total.
London had the
largest number of rough sleepers at 557, which accounted for 24% of the total.
This percentage is probably an underestimate once the misinterpretation of
government guidelines for counting by other areas is taken into account.
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. Between April 1, 2011 and March, 31 2012, 5,678 people
were seen sleeping rough by outreach workers. This is an increase of 43% compared
to 2010/11. Enhanced levels of outreach services as part of the new ‘No Second
Night Out’ strategy means that people sleeping rough, and in particular new
people to the street, are more likely to be contacted. The greatest increase
occurred in April to May 2011, when the ‘No Second Night Out’ project started.
have pointed towards a greater flow of new people becoming homeless and ending
up on the streets.
It is clear though
that less people are living on the streets than was the case in the 1990’s and
1980’s. The introduction of No Second Night Out has also ensured that nearly
80% of rough sleepers new to the streets don’t spend a second night there.
As you will have
grasped by now, most rough sleepers will not find their way into the statutory
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. 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, there are 11,484 bed-spaces
in hostels and longer term accommodation in London. In the UK there are a total
of 39,763 bed-spaces in hostels and longer term 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,
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):
52,960 households in temporary accommodation (July 1 – September 30,
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 (31%)
Approximately 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 indicated 2,309 people
slept rough on any one night in England (Autumn 2012). 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 for a longer
A mixture of street counts and estimates indicated 557 people slept
rough on any one night in London
5,678 different people slept rough over a year in London (April 1 2011-March
11,484 hostel and longer-term bed-spaces in London
40,000 hostel and longer-term bed-spaces in United Kingdom
At least 75,000 individuals use hostels over a year
Estimated at 400,000.
Updated March 2013
Read more about these facts and figures on Wikipedia