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 rehouse 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 – October to December Quarter 3, 2015-16 show that
there were 69,140 households in temporary accommodation on 31 December 2015.
This is 12% more than at the same date last year but still much lower than its
peak in 2004 when numbers peaked at around the 100,000 mark. The number has been
gradually rising since 2012.
14,470 households were accepted as homeless between October 1 and December
31, 6% higher than during the same quarter of 2014 though 1% down on the
Of these, 75% 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 31%(4,510 households). This is a big rise, more than doubling,
from the first quarter in 2011 which showed only 15% becoming homeless due to
the end of an assured shorthold tenancy. The background to why this has
happened is that there has been a growth in England in the size of the private
rented sector so that 4.3 million households are now housed in this sector.
Between October 1 and December 31, a main homelessness duty was ended
for 10,340 households who had previously been in temporary accommodation or
were waiting in their existing housing to be rehoused elsewhere.
They are mainly first time rather than repeat applications of
homelessness as most local authorities are still discharging their duties by
offering social housing – 7,000 (68%) 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. 380 households accepted
offers of settled accommodation in the private rented sector which local
authorities have been given government permission to use in recent years. This
is up from 370 in the same quarter the previous year.
The reasons for the loss of the last settled home in 27% of cases is
relatives or friends being no longer able, or willing, to accommodate the
In a further 16% of acceptances, the reason for homelessness was the
breakdown of a relationship with a partner, 71% of these cases involving
The quarterly figures indicate only 1% were accepted as homeless because
of mortgage arrears and through possession of their homes. (100 of the 14,470
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 4,980 ‘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 2,550 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
Of the 69,140 households in temporary accommodation on December 31,
2015, 18,670 or 27% of households were housed in temporary accommodation in another
local authority district. This is an increase of 17% from the 15,990 households
in temporary accommodation in another local authority district at the same date
17,150 or 92% of the England total were from London authorities. This is
an increase of 16% from the same date last year when 14,830 such households
were placed by London authorities.
This last figure may well be an indicator of the impact of Government
welfare reforms – the housing benefit cap alongside high London property prices
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
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 44 local authorities where it was believed
that the local rough sleeping problem justified counting and estimates were
provided by the other 282 local authorities.
The street counts and estimates represent a snapshot of the number of
people sleeping rough on a single night.
The autumn 2015 total of rough sleeping counts and estimates indicates a
total of 3,569 people. This is up by 825 (30%) from the autumn 2014 total of 2,744
and 101% from 1,768 in 2010 when the first equivalent count took place.
London had the largest number of rough sleepers at 940, which accounted
for 26% of the national figure.
The number of rough sleepers in London has increased by 27% from 742 in
Autumn 2014, compared to an increase of 31% 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 provincial 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 people sleeping
rough on any one night that would have been found in a ‘snapshot’ count, but
across a longer timescale. Examples of this include an estimate of 47 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. When a count was undertaken back in 2010, only three people
The 44 street counts conducted this year is a reduction on the 49 counts
undertaken last year, meaning estimates are increasingly being relied upon.
With many estimates failing to follow Government guidelines, the
national rough sleeping figures themselves are becoming increasingly inaccurate.
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.
annual figures are compiled from information provided by homelessness outreach
staff who tirelessly work around the clock in the capital to help people move
away from the streets – the information they gather is released in the CHAIN
Annual Report, Street to Home, April 1 2014 – March 31, 2015.
show not only how many people are sleeping rough in London but the reasons why
they have ended up on the streets and what is being done by services to help
them escape homelessness.
2,624 of the people seen rough sleeping were helped into accommodation or to
return to their home area.
figures show that 7,581 individuals were reported sleeping rough across the course
of the year, a rise of 16% over last year. Of which, 67% or 5,107 were seen
sleeping rough for the first time in London.
3,400 people or 67% of new rough sleepers only spent one night sleeping out on
the capital thanks mainly to the fact that the street outreach teams are able
to reach people quickly, assisted by the public who are able to contact the
teams via StreetLink http://www.streetlink.org.uk/
figure is consistent with figures from recent years and illustrates the success
of the GLA funded No Second Night Out approach which has focused on getting to
people quickly before they become long-term rough sleepers.
number of people who sleep rough consistently throughout the year remains low
with only 183 or 2% of those rough sleepers met on the streets by outreach
workers in 2014/15 were seen in all four quarters.
such as Thames Reach’s Housing First and Ace Social Impact Bond team have done
much to help those living on the streets.
Reach’s London Street Rescue team is out every night of the year covering 19
London boroughs and Heathrow Airport, while the organisation also undertakes
outreach work in Tower Hamlets and Croydon as well as offering specialist
interventions through its TRIO team.
people sleeping rough were helped off the streets of London by Thames Reach
outreach teams between October 1, 2014 and September 30, 2015.
and enduring mental health problems remains one of the main reasons why people
sleep rough. 48% of London’s rough sleepers had mental health support needs and
more must be done to help this group escape street homelessness through
multi-agency approaches involving mental health specialists coming onto the
street with outreach teams.
figures also show that only nine people under 18 slept rough in London during
the course of the year, a testament to the effectiveness of the services
working with young people.
majority of London’s rough sleepers are defined as non-UK nationals, accounting
for 58% of the total. One of the biggest challenges facing the outreach teams
is to assist people to reconnect home to family and friends when things are not
working out for them in London or, in the case of economic migrants who are
sleeping rough and working, to ensure that they are employed legally (as many
are working within the informal economy) and able to access affordable, shared
14% or 1,094 of the total
people sleeping rough were female.
The number of UK ex-armed services personnel is often the subject of
media interest and yet figures showed 151 individuals, making up only 3% of the
total on the streets. More non-UK individuals had experience of being in the
armed services overseas, however, making up 6% 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 January 1 – March 31, 2015,
2,561 individuals were found sleeping on London’s streets. This is a 9%
increase on the total figure for January 1 – March 31, 2014. It is down 12% from
the total of 2,862 people found in the immediately preceding three-month
1,190 people were recorded as sleeping rough
for the first time, which was 4% higher than the same quarter last year.
884 people or 74% spent just one night
The number of long term rough sleepers deemed
to be living on the streets was 374 and is unchanged from the same period last
year, and 21% lower than the immediately preceding period of October – December
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 1,020. This is 18% higher than the
same period last year but 9% lower than the immediately preceding three-month
During this timescale 478 rough sleepers were booked into
accommodation or helped to return home. 491 were found and booked into the No
Second Night Out Assessment Centres.
40% of rough sleepers from London’s streets
were from the UK and 60% were from overseas. 38% were from Central and Eastern
Europe including 20% from Romania.
The support needs of the people seen sleeping
rough by outreach services showed 46% had mental health issues, 42% had issues
with alcohol, almost invariably super-strength lagers and ciders, 32% had
issues with drugs, primarily heroin and crack cocaine, and only 26% 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.
Emergency hostels 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 to either second stage accommodation or to a new
long-term home. Second stage accommodation offers specialist support to
homeless people as they aim to get their lives back on track.
Most people move out of hostels within a year, but some stay longer,
perhaps because suitable accommodation is not available or because their needs
According to Homeless Link, which produced ‘Support for Single Homeless
People in England Annual Review 2015’, there are a total of 36,540 bed-spaces
in 1,253 hostels and second stage accommodation across England. London has the
highest number of projects in total with 183 and the most bed spaces with 9,647.
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):
69,140 households in temporary accommodation (December 31, 2015)
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 (31%)
Nearly 20,000 people annually are found to be homeless but not in
Approximately 10,000 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 3,569 people slept rough on any one night in
England (Autumn 2015). This is up by 825 (30%) from the autumn 2013 total of 2,744
and 101% 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 940 people slept
rough on any one night in London, accounting for 26% of the national figure
of the people seen rough sleeping in London were helped into accommodation or
to return to their home area
individuals were reported sleeping rough across the course of the year in
London, a rise of 16 % over last year
or 5,107 were seen sleeping rough for the first time in London.
3,400 people or 67% of new rough sleepers only spent one night sleeping out on
183 or 2% of those rough sleepers seen on the streets in 2014/15 were seen in
all four quarters
nine people under 18 slept rough in London during the course of the year
majority of London’s rough sleepers are defined as non-UK nationals, accounting
for 60% of the total in the latest quarterly figures
of London’s rough sleepers had mental health support needs in the latest
During the period January 1 – March 31,
2015, 2,561 individuals were found sleeping on London’s streets. This is a 9%
increase on the total figure for January 1 – March 31, 2015. It is down 12%
from the total of 2,862 people found in the immediately preceding three-month
9,647 hostel and longer-term bed-spaces in London
36,540 hostel and second stage accommodation bed-spaces in England
At least 75,000 individuals use hostels over a year
Estimated at 400,000
Updated May 2016.