Homelessness – 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. 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  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 re-house into longer term housing, 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 – October to December Quarter 2014 show that there were 61,970 households in temporary accommodation on 31 December 2014. This is 9% 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.
13,650 households were accepted as homeless between October 1 and December 31, 6% higher than during the same quarter of 2013.
Of these, 74% 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 30%. This is a big rise, doubling, from the same quarterly figures back in only 2010 which showed only 15% becoming homeless due to the end of an assured shorthold tenancy. They are mainly first time rather than repeat applications of homelessness as most local authorities are still discharging their duties by offering social housing – 69% of households were provided with settled accommodation or accepted what is known as a ‘Part 6’ offer of a tenancy in local authority or housing association accommodation. 360 or 1% of households accepted offers in the private rented sector which local authorities have been given government permission to use in recent years.
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, 73% of these cases involving violence.
The quarterly figures indicate only 1% were accepted as homeless because of mortgage arrears and through possession of their homes. (200 of the 13,650 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 5,240 ‘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 2,450 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 anti-social behaviour.
16,000 or 26% of households were housed in temporary accommodation in another local authority district. This is an increase of 24% from the 12,190 households in temporary accommodation in another local authority district at the same date last year.
14,830 or 93% were from London authorities. This is an increase of 29% from the same date last year when 11,490 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 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
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 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.
The 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.
They 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.
An impressive 2,624 of the people seen rough sleeping were helped into accommodation or to return to their home area.
The 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.
Over 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/
This 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.
The 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.
Services such as Thames Reach’s Housing First and Ace Social Impact Bond team have done much to help those living on the streets.
Ace, 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.
Housing 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.
Thames 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.
Severe 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.
The figures also show that only 9 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.
The 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 accommodation.
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, 2014, 2,343 individuals were found sleeping on London’s streets. This is a 15% increase on the total figure for January 1 – March 31, 2014. It is however down 9% from the October 1 – December 31, 2014 figure of 2,565.
1,146 people were recorded as sleeping rough for the first time, which was 11% up on the 1,030 figure for the same quarter last year but 9% down on the total figure of 1,262 for October – December 2014.
825 or 72% spent just one night sleeping rough.
The number of long term rough sleepers deemed to be living on the streets was 374 and is 5% lower than the same period last year, and 12% lower than the immediately preceding period of October – December 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 864. This is 32% higher than the same period last year but 5% lower than the immediately preceding three month period.
During this timescale 606 rough sleepers were booked into accommodation or helped to return home, a decrease of 7% over the previous quarter’s figure of 655. 592 were found and booked into the No Second Night Out Assessment Centres.
43% of rough sleepers from London’s streets were from the UK and 57% were from overseas. 36% were from Central and Eastern Europe including 19% from Romania.
The support needs of the people seen sleeping rough by outreach services showed 44% had mental health issues, 43% had issues with alcohol, almost invariably super-strength lagers and ciders, 31% 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 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 ‘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):
· 61,970 households in temporary accommodation (December 31, 2014)
· 74% 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 20,000 people annually are found to be homeless but not in priority need
· Nearly 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 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.
· 2,624 of the people seen rough sleeping were helped into accommodation or to return to their home area
· 7,581 individuals were reported sleeping rough across the course of the year, a rise of 16 % over last year
· 67% or 5,107 were seen sleeping rough for the first time in London.
· Over 3,400 people or 67% of new rough sleepers only spent one night sleeping out on the capital
· Only 183 or 2% of those rough sleepers seen on the streets in 2014/15 were seen in all four quarters
· Only 9 people under 18 slept rough in London during the course of the year
· The majority of London’s rough sleepers are defined as non-UK nationals, accounting for 57% of the total
· 45 % of London’s rough sleepers had mental health support needs
· During the period January – March 2015, 2,343 individuals were found sleeping on London’s streets. This is a 15% increase on the total figure for January – March 2014. It is however down 9% from the October – December 2014 figure of 2,565.
· 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 June 19 2015.