Let's Talk About Homelessness In The UK

Jul 12, 2022
6 min read
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Homelessness in the UK is a complex problem that is steadily growing worse by the day. This is why we have decided to take a detailed look at what homelessness is, the history of homelessness, the various types of homelessness and the many causes of homelessness in the UK. 

History of homelessness 

Most people think that homelessness is a new problem in the UK, but in fact, it has always been around. The causes of homelessness in the UK haven't changed much over the years.

Up until the 1960s, homelessness in the UK was explained with emphasis on individual pathology, often focusing on the ill-health and/or substance dependencies of homeless people.

However, the latter part of the decade saw a shift from individual factors dominating explanations for becoming homeless towards a focus on more structural factors. This was reinforced by a series of academic studies which forcefully put the case that homelessness was the result of social and economic forces.

The influential report by Drake et al. (1981) attributed homelessness primarily to an insufficient supply of affordable accommodation for those in weak economic positions. The housing market-based account of homelessness quickly ran into trouble during the 1980s.

As research repeatedly demonstrated the non-housing problems experienced by many single homeless people, particularly with regards to mental health, drugs and alcohol. 

What are the different types of homelessness in the UK?

  1. Rough sleeping

Rough sleeping is the most visible and dangerous form of homelessness, and when most people think of a homeless person they tend to think of someone sleeping rough on the streets. The longer someone experiences rough sleeping the more likely they are to face challenges around trauma, mental health and drug misuse.

  1. Statutory homelessness

Local authorities have a duty to secure a home for some groups of people. This is often referred to as the main homelessness duty. Every year, tens of thousands of people across the UK apply to their local authority for homelessness assistance.

To be legally defined as homeless you must either lack a secure place in which you are entitled to live or not reasonably be able to stay. However, in order to receive assistance under the main homelessness duty, there are further strict criteria that you have to meet.

Local authorities may initially provide temporary accommodation to households who might meet these criteria, mainly families with children.

  1. Hidden homelessness

Many people who are not entitled to help with housing, or who don’t even approach their councils for help, aren’t counted in the official statistics. This is why Crisis carries out its annual study of national statistics on core homelessness.

Many stay in hostels, squats or B&Bs, in overcrowded accommodation or ‘concealed' housing, such as the floors or sofas of friends and family.

  1. At risk of homelessness

Some people are more at risk of being pushed into homelessness than others. People in low paid jobs, living in poverty and poor quality or insecure housing are more likely to experience homelessness.

What causes homelessness in the UK?

There is often no one single reason for someone to become homeless, it is often due to a chain of other life events. Some people are more vulnerable to becoming homeless due to factors such as:

  • Poor physical health
  • Mental health problems
  • Alcohol and drugs issues
  • Bereavement
  • Experience of care
  • Experience of the criminal justice system
  • Sexual or financial exploitation

Structural factors are also part of the problem and these can include poverty, inequality, housing supply and affordability, unemployment, welfare and income policies.

Structural and individual factors are often interrelated. Individual issues can arise from structural disadvantages such as poverty or lack of education. While personal factors, such as family and social relationships, can also be put under pressure by structural forces such as poverty.

Why is understanding homelessness so important?

We need to understand why homelessness is such a huge issue in the UK before we tackle it. 

Homelessness statistics:

The average age of death for people experiencing homelessness is 45 for men and 43 for women.

People sleeping on the street are almost 17 times more likely to have been victims of violence. More than one in three people sleeping rough have been deliberately hit or kicked or experienced some other form of violence whilst homeless.

Homeless people are over nine (9) times more likely to take their own life than the general population. 

How many people in the UK are homeless?

It is extremely difficult to know the exact number of people who are homeless in the UK. In December 2021, Shelter conducted a study to find out the number of homeless people on one given night in England and they included:

  • People who have been accepted as homeless and now live in temporary accommodation arranged by their local authorities & councils
  • People who have been accepted as homeless and now live in temporary accommodation arranged by themselves or are living ‘homeless at home’ – meaning that they are legally homeless because it is not reasonable for them to continue to live in their home, but they are yet to be moved into temporary accommodation
  • People sleeping rough on the streets
  • Single people who are homeless and living in hostel accommodation, but who are not counted amongst those in the statutory homelessness figures above
  • People who are owed a duty under the Children’s Act and are living in temporary accommodation that has been arranged by Social Services

Shelter concluded that on a given night in 2021 there will have been over 274,000 people who were homeless, which is a rate of 1 in 206 people. This population is mainly made up of people who are homeless and living in temporary accommodation (just under 250,000). 

Who is homeless?

Characteristics of homeless households are relatively similar across the UK despite legislative and reporting differences. The largest categories for households seeking help for homelessness are single-person households without children (those aged between 25 to 49 years) and males.

Households seeking help for homelessness with a main household member aged over 60 years have increased in recent years while those with a main household member aged under 24 to 25 years have decreased.

Some official statistics:

In 2017/18, there were 56,580 households in England in statutory homelessness, which is when a household is unintentionally homeless and is considered a priority (for example, because it has dependent children).

  • Of those, 35,020 (or 62%) were from White households (including White ethnic minorities)
  • 14% of all homeless households were Black
  • 9% were Asian
  • 4% were from a mixed ethnic background and
  • 4% were from the Other ethnic group
  • Ethnicity wasn't known for 6% of homeless households

London had the highest overall number of homeless households; it also had the lowest percentage of homeless households made up of White households.

In 2017/18, there were 2.4 homeless households for every 1,000 households in England; there were 4.2 homeless households for every 1,000 households in London, and 2.1 for every 1,000 households in the rest of England.

The local authority with the highest number of homeless households per 1,000 households was Newham in London (9.4 per 1,000), where Asian households made up the highest percentage of homeless households (at 36%)*(Gov, 2018.)

What is Greater Change doing to help homelessness?

Founded in 2018, Greater Change supports people who, with some funding, can make a long-term positive change. We support everyone who is homeless, or at immediate risk of becoming homeless.

The charities that we partner with refer people to us who would benefit from our help. We then encourage support workers to build up a relationship with individuals who are homeless, ask them what they want, and need, to return to a home, and create a clear action plan and a savings target to achieve this.

Savings targets are typically for housing deposits, ID, and training courses. However, we do not stipulate what the funding can be used for but take a common-sense approach to fund things which the people we are helping and their support workers demonstrate will help them back into homes and thrive there: people who are homeless have control over the process.

Offering this budget shows trust, encourages engagement and differs from typical offers of generic help. We then fundraise for their savings target.

Once the target is reached, the support worker’s charity purchases the saving goal directly, to ensure accountability and transparency. We have now helped over 450 clients out of homelessness and into long term stability. 

How can you help a homeless person?

  1. Refer them to Streetlink

You can refer a rough sleeper to Streetlink. If you see a rough sleeper on the street and would like to report them, you can visit StreetLink's website or call 0300 500 0914.

StreetLink is the national service that helps to connect people with local services for those living on the streets. It’s free, confidential and available 24 hours a day. It’s run by Crisis (the national charity working with single homeless people), along with local authorities across the UK

So as well as connecting people with temporary accommodation and other services they need, it also works with local councils to make sure that anyone without a safe place to stay in future will have somewhere else safe to go.

The site allows users to search by postcode or town name if they're not sure where they live, so it's easy enough even if you don't know where your nearest homeless shelter is located.

The service also offers advice regarding benefits, housing options and other useful information that may be useful for someone who has just become homeless (or knows somebody else who has).

What happens after I refer someone?

When you refer a person to StreetLink, their details will be entered into our database and passed on to our outreach workers. The outreach worker will contact the person you are referring to and offer them help. They can arrange for them to be assessed by a specialist homelessness service, or provide further information about advice on where they can find accommodation or other support in the local area.

Every week, StreetLink receives almost 10,000 referrals from across England and Wales - so it's important that we put measures in place so that we can make sure all of those who need help get it as quickly as possible.

  1. Street assessment teams

Street assessment teams are made up of workers who visit the areas where people are rough sleeping at night. The referral may come via a member of the public using the Streetlink hotline or online form or could be a self-referral.

The street contact and assessment service is provided by various organisations, depending on the location.

In London, for example, the charity St Mungos provides the No Second Night Out service (NSNO) which can refer new rough sleepers to one of three 'hubs' for an emergency assessment.

Where a person has not slept rough before, the outreach worker may make a referral to a service which aims to secure immediate temporary accommodation, often in the area where the person was previously living, so that they do not have to sleep out again. Homeless Link provides information on reconnecting rough sleepers to areas where they have support or other connections.

Street assessment teams also give rough sleepers information about available health care, night shelters and hostels, and other resources for homeless people. Some hostels and night shelters will only take referrals from a contact and assessment team worker. Some outreach teams will work with people on a long-term basis.

The government has produced a map of local outreach teams across England, with their contact details.

  1. Give someone time, rather than your money: When someone on the street asks for money some give instinctively, while others struggle with what it might be spent on. It might be spent on items which will harm the person, rather than help them such as alcohol and drugs. 
  2. Give them small items which may help them stay warm and safe such as coffee, water, food, socks or a blanket.
  3. Remember the hidden homeless: When rough sleepers line the streets, their plight is painfully visible. However, there are many, many more people whose struggles are hidden. People could encourage those at risk of losing their homes to call their helpline, which is open 365 days a year for advice and support. The government's Homelessness Reduction Bill places a duty on local authorities to help eligible people secure somewhere to live 56 days before they are threatened with homelessness. Councils must also provide those who do find themselves homeless with support for another 56 days to help to secure accommodation.

How do I communicate with someone who is homeless? 

  1. Be kind and say hello, ask their name and use it.

When you see someone who is homeless, many people are afraid to say hello. However, it's important to remember that these people are real people with feelings and family members who love them just as much as we all do.

Ask them for their name and use it when talking to them instead of referring to them as "you" or "the homeless person." This shows respect for their individuality as human beings rather than lumping them into some category or stereotype that makes us feel better about ourselves or the situation at hand.

  1. Offer your assistance in ways other than money.

Offering to buy someone a meal, drink or snack is a wonderful way to help them feel cared for.

If you're able, offering to buy someone food can be especially meaningful. It may be their only source of regular nutrition, and it's likely that they haven't had the opportunity to cook themselves in quite some time (if ever).

This gesture shows them that they are worth taking care of and that their needs matter. Asking if there's anything you can do for them is also an excellent way to start a conversation with a homeless individual—they may not always be comfortable asking for help from strangers themselves.

If you choose this route, don't pressure or guilt-trip your recipient into accepting your offer; instead of saying "take my money," try something like "you look like you could use some food."

  1. Remember that they are still people.

You should remember that they are still people, and therefore deserve to be treated with respect. They have feelings and emotions just like anyone else, and might even have families or friends who care about them. Many homeless people will tell you their stories if you ask nicely.

Remember: no matter what their situation is, these individuals are still human beings with hopes and dreams.

  1. Don't judge their circumstances.

Don't judge them. Many people on the street are there because of circumstances beyond their control, such as job loss or mental illness.

Don't blame them for being homeless. It's easy to get frustrated with a person who chooses to live on the streets when you're trying to enjoy your morning run, but homelessness isn't a choice—it's usually caused by factors beyond someone's control, like drug abuse or physical disability.

  1. Ignore stereotypes about homelessness.

When you see someone you don’t know on the street, it can be tempting to form an opinion about them based on their appearance or situation. You might think “well, this person is homeless because they choose to be.” Or maybe you think: “I could never become homeless—I have too many responsibilities!”

But these kinds of stereotypes can cause us to miss out on opportunities for connection and compassion. In fact, as many as one in five families experience a housing crisis at some point in their lives—that means if your family isn't currently experiencing homelessness themselves, there's a chance one of their family members has been through it recently.

Learn about what's really behind homelessness and poverty in your area.

While it's true that many people who are homeless have a lack of money, there are other reasons why someone may be without a place to live.

Many people are homeless because they have a mental illness. They may not be able to take care of themselves or live on their own, or they could have trouble securing accommodation from landlords to rent an apartment because of their condition.

Many people are homeless because they have substance abuse problems. Drugs and alcohol can make it difficult for someone to hold down a job or maintain relationships with family members and friends, leading them down the path toward poverty and homelessness.

Many homeless persons also have a disability—whether it's physical limitations or something more internal like schizophrenia, depression or anxiety disorders—and these disabilities make finding employment difficult if not impossible (or at least very challenging).

A person who can't work might fall behind on rent payments and end up being evicted from their home if landlords aren't flexible enough to allow them time off during an illness...even if that sickness is related only tenuously back to physical health!

And finally: Many people become homeless after being released from prison because there hasn't been enough time since release before moving into permanent housing (or even supportive services) becomes necessary again. Find out more about why people become homeless here. 

Final Thoughts

It's OK to be afraid or nervous around someone who is new to you, but don't let that stop you from treating them with respect.

When it comes to homeless people, the general public has a lot of misconceptions. They may seem dangerous or scary because they're living on the streets and have had very little interaction with other people.

But there are many reasons why they might be out there—some people just aren't able to get housing because of mental illness or addiction issues.

Others have been forced into homelessness by economic circumstances like job loss and lack of affordable housing options. And still, others choose this lifestyle because they feel freer away from society's norms and expectations (and perhaps their controlling families).

They're not all criminals, thieves, or lazy people looking for handouts—they're often just regular people who want what everyone else wants: food in their bellies and some dignity left in the world.

If you would like to make difference in someone's life using our proven method here at Greater Change then please click the button below to get started right away.