Homelessness in the United Kingdom

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Homeless man in London, 2015

Homelessness in the United Kingdom is measured and responded to in differing ways in England, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but affects people living in all areas of the countries.

Number and condition of homeless people[edit]

The UK homeless charity Shelter put the 2017 figure for the whole of the UK's homeless at 300,000.[1][2] Recorded deaths among rough sleepers and those in temporary accommodation more than doubled in the five years to 2018.[3] Homeless people die much younger than the general population, research by the Office for National Statistics shows. Homeless men die on average aged 44 while homeless women die on average aged 42. Homeless deaths have been rising steadily in the five years to 2018. Suicide, drug and alcohol abuse are the most common causes of death among homeless people. Jon Sparkes of Crisis urged the government to put causes of homelessness right, "like building the number of social homes we need and making sure our welfare system is there to support people when they fall on hard times".[4][5] The charity, Crisis attributes rising homelessness to a shortage of social housing, housing benefits not covering private rents and there not being homeless prevention schemes for people leaving care. Crisis wants the government to change policy.[6]

Crisis estimates there are roughly 12,300 rough sleepers in the UK and also 12,000 people sleeping in sheds, bins, cars, tents and night busses. The figure is derived from research by Heriot-Watt University. Rough sleeping has risen by 98% since 2010, sleeping in tents and the like rose 103%. In England rough sleeping rose by 120%, in Wales it rose by 75% and in Scotland it fell by 5%. Scotland has more inclusive homelessness laws, since 2012 guaranteeing a right to settled accommodation for all homeless people, including young single men, while England only houses those in “priority” need, like families with dependent children. Jon Sparkes of Crisis said, “Christmas should be a time of joy, but for thousands of people sleeping rough, in tents or on public transport it will be anything but. While most of the country will be celebrating and enjoying a family meal, those who are homeless will face a struggle just to stay safe and escape the cold. This situation simply cannot continue. While the Scottish government has taken the first step in announcing a plan to eradicate homelessness, full implementation cannot come soon enough. Meanwhile, the governments in England and Wales must step up urgently with their own plans to end this crisis.”[7]

In December 2018 over 130,000 children are living in temporary accommodation, frequently a family shares one room and shares kitchen and bathroom with other residents. Some properties offering temporary housing for homeless children are rat infested. The number has risen 59% in the five years to 2018. Greg Beales of Shelter said, “We hear about cold, damp – even rats. Young children are sharing beds with multiple family members, trying to play in dirty public corridors and having to leave their block in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. From 2010 to 2018 the number of homeless people in temporary housing rose by 61%, due to high rents, cuts to welfare and lack of affordable housing. Local Authority spending on temporary housing rose 39% during the same time and cost the taxpayer £845m in 2016. Living in insecure accommodation, often for years with frequent changes of address, can harm children’s mental and emotional wellbeing, also their schooling, according to Shelter.[8]

History of homelessness support[edit]

Major instances of homelessness in the history of the United Kingdom have included:

Historically, homelessness support was provided by monastic communities but after the Reformation, governmental support was provided by means of the poor law, which differed in England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland; though under the same Crown for most of this time, these were different jurisdictions. Eventually, a system of elected local authorities replaced the looser organisation of disparate local administrative bodies, including poor law unions.


To prevent homelessness Crisis maintains with support from Justin Welby[11] the public sector should:

  • Build 100,500 social homes a year to address the needs of homeless people and those on low income.
  • Introduce Housing First nationally providing homes and specialized support for homeless people.
  • Improve rights for private renters and improve housing benefit.
  • The care system, hospitals, prisons should be legally required to help find homes for those leaving their care.
  • There should be homelessness specialists at Job Centres.[12]

Causes of homelessness[edit]

A homeless man near Princes Street in Edinburgh.

The longer term causes of homelessness have been examined by a number of research studies. A number of different pathways into homelessness have been identified;[13] research suggests that both personal factors (e.g. addictions) and structural factors (e.g. poverty) are ultimately responsible for the sequence of events that results in homelessness. For young people, there are additional factors that appear to be involved, most notably needing to face the responsibilities of independent living before they are ready for them.[14] Rising cost of housing and increasing job insecurity have also been identified as contributing factors.[15]

The housing crisis had increased the number of homeless pensioners by 115% in 8 years, some are in temporary housing or sofa surfing but others are sleeping rough. Lone parent families are also disproportionately often homeless, 63% of families in temporary housing are lone parent while 32% of all families are lone parent.[16] The number of homeless single mothers rose by 50% during the eight years to 2018.[17] Campaigners maintain government welfare cuts, unavailability of affordable housing and increasing rents caused the increasing number of homeless people. 123,130 children were in temporary housing in England in the first three months of 2018, nearly 80% more than in 2011.[18]

Women fleeing domestic violence and abuse are frequently unable to access shelters, A survey by Women's Aid found 12% were forced to sleep rough, 46% sofa surfed, 8% returned to the abuser. This included pregnant women and women with children. The government plans to take refuges and other types of short-term supported housing away from the welfare system and there are warnings this will increase the number of abuse victims becoming homeless. Removing housing benefit would prevent women escaping abuse paying for their housing, the last guaranteed income for refuges. The benefit comprises on average 53% of refuge income. Katie Ghose of Women's Aid said, “It is no wonder that women and their children who are literally fleeing for their lives end up sleeping rough or returning to an abusive partner if they are turned away from services who should be helping them.” 54% of women who tried to get support from their local housing team, were prevented from making a homeless application, and were therefore refused help for emergency accommodation. 23%, were told they were not a priority despite multiple vulnerabilities, and 15% were forced to give proof they had suffered domestic abuse.[19]

53% of families in temporary housing are working families. Shelter blames a 73% rise in private-sector rents, the housing benefit freeze, unstable tenancies and insufficient social housing. Polly Neate of Shelter said, “It’s disgraceful that even when families are working every hour they can, they’re still forced to live through the grim reality of homelessness.”[20]

Modern Governmental assistance[edit]

Homeless shelter in London, 1866

Policy on homelessness is overseen by the Department for Communities and Local Government and Homes and Communities Agency in England,[21] the Scottish Government Housing and Social Justice Directorate,[22] the Welsh Government,[23] and the Department for Communities and Northern Ireland Housing Executive[24][25] in Northern Ireland. It has been a devolved policy area outside England since the introduction of devolution in the 1990s. The Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 focused national attention on homelessness and housing quality, and resulted in around 255 people becoming homeless overnight.[26] Half of young people at risk of homelessness in the UK who approach their local authority, get no significant help.[27]

All local authorities in the UK have a legal duty to provide 24-hour advice to homeless people, or those who are at risk of becoming homeless within 28 days. Once an individual applies to a local authority for assistance, from a person claiming to be homeless (or threatened with homelessness), the local authority is also duty bound to make inquiries into that person's circumstances, in order to decide whether they suffer statutory homelessness. For people meeting such criteria, the authority has a legal duty to find accommodation for the person, and provide them with assistance. Lack of financial support from the UK government is preventing Local Authorities from carrying out their duties to homeless people.[citation needed] Local Authorities should legally provide homelessness assistance to people with the right to live in the UK. Rough sleeping has risen 169% since 2010. Centrepoint found 57% of Local Authorities find it hard to carry out their duties to people from 16 to 24 years old alone and need to do 45,000 further assessments just to carry out their legal duties to this age group. Only 13% of young people were housed by their Local Authority in 2017. The government allocated £72 million over three years to English Local Authorities to meet their obligations but it is unclear if this is sufficient.[28]

Limitation to assistance[edit]

Homeless people are sometimes fined or sent to prison for begging or rough sleeping. More than 50 Local Authorities have Public Space Protection Orders. Homeless people are banned from town centres, some are routinely fined hundreds of pounds or sent to prison for repeatedly begging. The above treatment can make it harder for homeless people to sort their lives out and find work.[29] Orders issued against homeless people are potentially illegal but legal aid providers do not give homeless people legal aid to resist these orders. Liberty is challenging the refusal to provide legal aid.[30]

Homeless people have difficulty accessing dental services because they cannot provide an address.[31]

Large numbers of homeless people die and when this happens authorities do little to find out the cause of death or to prevent future similar deaths.[32] 80% of rough sleepers who died in London in 2017 had mental health problems compared to 29% in 2010 according to research by St Mungo's. Petra Salva of St Mungo's said, “This is a scandal and something the government needs to recognise and do more about ... there should be more funds and support for these groups but instead they have been cut over the years and that correlates in these people stuck living on the streets ... these deaths are preventable.” There are calls to make help for homeless people with mental health issues more readily available and more quickly available.[33] Salva maintains figures for homeless deaths are an underestimate because homeless deaths are not recorded at national or local level.[34]

Statutory homelessness[edit]


A person suffers statutory homelessness if governmental regulations oblige the council to provide housing-related support to the person. At present this criteria is met if (and only if) all of the following conditions are true:

  • they do not have a permanent home
  • the person is not prevented from accessing UK public funds by immigration laws
  • the person has a local connection to the local authority's area (this could, for example, be the residential presence of family, friends, or previous residence of the person themselves)
  • the person unintentionally become homeless (this does not include eviction for non-payment of rent)
  • the person is in priority need; this condition has been abolished in Scotland since the start of 2013,[35] and there are campaigns for it to be abolished in the rest of the UK.

The definition of priority need varies between England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but generally includes any of following conditions being met:

  • pregnancy
  • a dependant child
  • an age of 16-17
  • aged 18–20 and leaving local authority care
  • vulnerability due to
    • old age, or
    • mental illness, or
    • mental/physical disability
    • leaving the armed forces
    • leaving prison
  • fleeing, or at the risk of, domestic violence
  • homelessness due to an emergency (such as flood, fire, or other disaster)

A person does not have to be roofless to legally qualify as lacking a permanent home. They may be in possession of accommodation which it is not reasonably feasible to continue to use by virtue of its affordability, condition, or location. The requirement to have a local connection does not apply if it would lead to the applicant becoming a victim of violence, or at risk of violence.

In Wales, priority need was similarly extended to include individuals who are aged 18 to 20 and at risk of financial or sexual exploitation, but provided they are leaving care.


Temporary accommodation must be provided to those that might be suffering statutory homelessness, pending a final decision. Often bed and breakfast hotels are used for temporary accommodation, unless a suitable hostel or refuge is available. The suitability of temporary accommodation is often a topic of concern for local media, and pressure groups.

If the council concludes that the applicant suffers statutory homelessness then the local authority has a legal duty to find long-term accommodation for the applicant and their household (those dependants who would ordinarily be living with them), and any other person whom it is reasonable to expect to reside with them. The council must offer/continue to provide temporary accommodation to such an applicant, on an immediate basis, until long-term accommodation is found for them.

Long-term accommodation may not necessarily be a socially rented home (one provided by the council, or by a Housing Association); the council can discharge its duty by finding an appropriate private sector tenancy for the applicant.

Non-statutory homelessness[edit]

If the authority decides that a person does lack a home, but does not qualify as suffering statutory homelessness, then a lesser obligation applies.

Where the applicant merely lacks a local connection to the council, the council will usually refer the applicant's case to a local authority with which they do have a local connection. If the applicant is in priority need, but is considered to have become homeless intentionally, the local authority is obliged to provide temporary accommodation for as long as is reasonably necessary for the applicant to find long-term accommodation; this is usually a fortnight, but additional periods of similar length can sometimes be provided at the council's discretion (typically granted in cases of extenuating circumstances).

Rough sleeping[edit]

A national service, called Streetlink, was established in 2012 to help members of the public obtain near-immediate assistance for specific rough sleepers, with the support of the Government (as housing is a devolved matter, the service currently only extends to England). Currently, the service doesn't operate on a statutory basis, and the involvement of local authorities is merely due to political pressure from the government and charities, with funding being provided by the government (and others) on an ad-hoc basis. The UK government has cut funding to local authorities and local authorities feel forced to reduce services for homeless people. It is feared this will increase the numbers of rough sleepers and increase the numbers dying while sleeping rough.[36]

A member of the public who is concerned that someone is sleeping on the streets can report the individual's details via the Street Link website or by calling 0300 500 0914. Someone who finds themselves sleeping on the streets can also report their situation using the same methods. It is important to note that the Streetlink service is for those who are genuinely sleeping on the streets, and not those who may merely be begging, or ostensibly living their life on the streets despite a place to sleep elsewhere (such as a hostel or supported accommodation).

The service aims to respond within 24 hours, including an assessment of the individual circumstances and an offer of temporary accommodation for the following nights. The response typically includes a visit to the rough sleeper early in the morning that follows the day or night on which the report has been made. The service operates via a number of charities and with the assistance of local councils.

Where appropriate, rough sleepers will also be offered specialist support:

  • if they have substance misuse issues, they will be referred for support from organisations such as St. Mungo's (despite the name, this is a non-religious charity)
  • if they are foreign nationals with no right to access public funds in the UK, repatriation assistance will be offered, including finding accommodation in the home country, construction of support plans, and financial assistance.

Other sources of assistance[edit]

Practical advice regarding homelessness can be obtained through a number of major non-governmental organisations including,

  • Citizens Advice Bureaus and some other charities also offer free legal advice in person, by telephone, or by email, from qualified lawyers and others operating on a pro bono basis
  • Shelter provides extensive advice about homelessness and other housing problems on their website, and from the telephone number given there, including about rights and legal situations.


Official statistics on homelessness for:

The UK homeless charity Shelter put the 2017 figure for the whole of the UK's homeless at 300,000.[37][38]

Research by The Guardian newspaper found that the "number of homeless people recorded dying on streets or in temporary accommodation has more than doubled over the last five years in the UK". Between 2013 and 2017, 230 people have died following a yearly increase in the number of deaths. The Guardian determined that in 2013, 31 homeless persons died, while in 2017 that number had risen to 70.[39]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ "More than 300,000 people in Britain homeless today". shelter.org.uk. Shelter. 8 November 2017. Retrieved 14 February 2018.
  2. ^ Webb, Kate (November 2017). Report: Far From Alone. Shelter.
  3. ^ Deaths of UK homeless people more than double in five years The Guardian
  4. ^ Homeless people's deaths 'up 24%' over five years BBC
  5. ^ Homeless deaths rise by a quarter in five years, official figures show The Guardian
  6. ^ Homelessness: Thousands sleeping rough in cars, Crisis says BBC
  7. ^ 24,000 sleeping rough or on public transport in UK, charity says The Guardian
  8. ^ 130,000 homeless children to be in temporary lodgings over Christmas The Guardian
  9. ^ Stratton, J.M.; Houghton Brown, Jack; Whitlock, Ralph; Baker, T.H. (1978). Agricultural records, A.D.220-1977 (2nd ed.). London: J. Baker. ISBN 9780212970223.
  10. ^ Coogan, Tim Pat (2015). "A job for the Army". The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966-1995 and the Search for Peace. London: Head of Zeus. pp. 91–92. ISBN 9781784975388.
  11. ^ Homelessness could be ended ‘within a decade’ with £10bn of government investment, charity claims The Independent
  12. ^ Homelessness could end in a decade, says charity Crisis BBC
  13. ^ Harding, Jamie; Irving, Adele; Whowell, Mary (2011). Homelessness, pathways to exclusion and opportunities for intervention (PDF). Newcastle upon Tyne: Northumbria Graphics, Arts and Social Sciences Academic Press. ISBN 9780956543318. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 June 2015.
  14. ^ Harding, Jamie (2004). Making it work the keys to success for young people living independently. Bristol: Policy Press. ISBN 9781847425942.
  15. ^ "More than 100,000 homeless households set to be trapped in temporary accommodation by 2020". The Independent. 2018-04-11. Retrieved 2018-04-13.
  16. ^ Number of homeless pensioners in England hits 10-year high, figures show The Independent
  17. ^ Conservative party risk ‘demonising’ single parents with benefits cuts, warns children’s commissioner The Independent
  18. ^ Child homelessness in England at highest level since 2007 The Guardian
  19. ^ Domestic abuse survivors and children sleeping rough, survey finds The Guardian
  20. ^ Shelter warns of leap in working homeless as families struggle The Guardian
  21. ^ "Housing for older and vulnerable people". www.gov.uk. Department for Communities and Local Government & Homes and Communities Agency. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  22. ^ "Homelessness". www.gov.scot. Scottish Government. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  23. ^ "Homelessness". gov.wales. Welsh Government. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  24. ^ "Housing". www.communities-ni.gov.uk. Department for Communities. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  25. ^ "Homelessness". www.nihe.gov.uk. Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  26. ^ Staff writer (10 July 2017). "Grenfell fire: Police say 255 people survived the blaze". BBC News. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  27. ^ Half of young people facing homelessness denied help – report The Guardian
  28. ^ New homelessness law could make “people unintentionally homeless”, warns councillor New Statesman
  29. ^ Hundreds of homeless people fined and imprisoned in England and Wales The Guardian
  30. ^ Legal Aid Agency taken to court for refusing to help rough sleepers The Guardian
  31. ^ Homeless people make us miss NHS targets, says UK's chief dentist The Guardian
  32. ^ Hundreds of deaths of homeless people 'going unexamined' The Guardian
  33. ^ Deaths of mentally ill rough sleepers in London rise sharply The Guardian
  34. ^ A homeless person dies every two weeks in London, figures show The Independent
  35. ^ Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act 2003.
  36. ^ Butler, Patrick; Laville, Sandra (21 January 2017). "UK council cuts will lead to more people sleeping rough, charities warn". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 January 2017.
  37. ^ "More than 300,000 people in Britain homeless today". shelter.org.uk. Shelter. 8 November 2017. Retrieved 14 February 2018.
  38. ^ Webb, Kate (November 2017). Report: Far From Alone. Shelter.
  39. ^ Greenfield, Patrick; Marsh, Sarah (2018-04-11). "Deaths of UK homeless people more than double in five years". The Guardian. Retrieved 2018-04-13.