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.
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
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
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 – January to March Quarter 2014 show that there were
58,590 households in temporary accommodation on 31 March 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.
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
In a further 17% of acceptances, the reason for homelessness was the
breakdown of a relationship with a partner, 69 % of these cases involving
The quarterly figures indicate only 2% were accepted as homeless because
of mortgage arrears and through possession of their homes. (230 of the 12,520
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 5,330 ‘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 2,090 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 36% over the year, with the figure
rising to 12,430 from 9,130 at the same date last year.
Of the 12,430 accommodated in another local authority district, 11,540 were
from London authorities (93% of the England total.) This is an increase of 40%
from the same date last year when 8,270 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
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 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
It does however indicate a 3% drop on last year’s total, coming down
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Statutory homelessness (England):
58,590 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
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)
11,155 hostel and longer-term bed-spaces
39,638 hostel and second stage
accommodation bed-spaces in England
At least 75,000 individuals use hostels
over a year
Estimated at 400,000.
Updated June 2014