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 – April to June Quarter 2015 show that there were 66,980
households in temporary accommodation on 30 June 2015. This is 12% 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.
13,850 households were accepted as homeless between April 1 and June 30,
5% higher than during the same quarter of 2014.
Of these, 75% are families or pregnant women. In contrast only 1% 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 30%. This is a big rise, doubling, from the first quarter
in 2011 which showed only 15% becoming homeless due to the end of an assured
Between April 1 and June 30, a main homelessness duty was ended for
10,260 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 – 6,980 (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. 550 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 450 in the same quarter the previous year.
The reasons for the loss of the last settled home is relatives or
friends being no longer able, or willing, to accommodate the person, and this accounts
for 28% of the total.
In a further 17% of acceptances, the reason for homelessness was the
breakdown of a relationship with a partner, 70% of these cases involving
The quarterly figures indicate only 1% were accepted as homeless because
of mortgage arrears and through possession of their homes. (130 of the 13,850
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 4,620 ‘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 2,150 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 66,980 households in temporary accommodation on June 30 2015,
17,640 or 26% of households were housed in temporary accommodation in another
local authority district. This is an increase of 25% from the 14,130 households
in temporary accommodation in another local authority district at the same date
16,370 or 93% were from London authorities. This is an increase of 24%
from the same date last year when 13,170 such households were in London.
This last figure may well be an indicator of the impact of the
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 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.
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.
impressive 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
remarkably 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.
funded through social investment, was set up in 2012 as a pioneering payment by
results project which was tasked with turning around the lives of 415 people
with a long history of sleeping rough. 367 of those rough sleepers are now no
longer sleeping rough.
First, funded by the GLA, was set up in 2012 to help a small group of 14 of
London’s most entrenched rough sleepers who between them had spent 70 years
living on the streets. All are now housed.
Reach’s London Street Rescue team is out every night of the year covering 19
London boroughs and Heathrow Airport and the organisation also undertakes
outreach work in Tower Hamlets and Croydon as well as offering specialist
interventions through its TRIO team.
and enduring mental health problems remains one of the main reasons why people
sleep rough. 45 % 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 57% 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 July 1 – September 30, 2015,
2,869 individuals were found sleeping on London’s streets. This is a 6%
increase on the total figure for July – September, 2014. It is however down 3%
from the April – June, 2015 figure of 2,775.
1,355 people were recorded as sleeping rough
for the first time, which was 7% lower than the same quarter last year and 7%
down on the total figure of 1,447 for April – June 2015.
983 or 73% spent just one night sleeping
The number of long term rough sleepers deemed
to be living on the streets was 376 and is 5% lower than the same period last
year, and 4% lower than the immediately preceding period of April – June 2015.
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 1173. This is 33% higher than the
same period last year and 17% higher than the immediately preceding three-month
During this timescale 502 rough sleepers were booked into
accommodation or helped to return home, a decrease of 4% over the previous
quarter’s figure of 525. 479 were found and booked into the No Second Night Out
42% of rough sleepers from London’s streets
were from the UK and 58% were from overseas. 35% were from Central and Eastern
Europe including 18% 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, 32% had
issues with drugs, primarily heroin and crack cocaine, and only 24% 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 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):
· 66,980 households in temporary accommodation (June 30, 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 (30%)
· Just over 18,000 people annually are found to be homeless but not in
· Approximately 8,600 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.
of the people seen rough sleeping were helped into accommodation or to return
to their home area
individuals were reported sleeping rough across the course of the year, 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
9 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 58% of the total in the latest quarterly figures.
· 46% of London’s rough sleepers had mental health support needs in the latest
· During the period July – September 2015, 2,869
individuals were found sleeping on London’s streets. This is a 6% increase on
the total figure for July – September 2014. It is also up 3% from the April – June
2015 figure of 2,775.
· 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 December 14 2015.