What types of homelessness are there?

Jun 8, 2022
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Homelessness is a complex issue and there are many different reasons why people end up without a home. Even though it’s the most visible of the types of homelessness, rough sleeping isn’t the only type.

Homelessness can also include families living in temporary accommodation such as hostels and bed and breakfasts. Or people who are staying with friends and family but who don’t have enough money to pay for their own place.

Homelessness occurs in two ways: absolute and relative. Absolute homelessness refers to the situation of a person who has no home at all. While relative homelessness describes those living on the street, in shelters or transitional housing, or in substandard housing they cannot afford.

This article will look at the different types of homelessness and which are the most prevalent in the UK. 

Hidden homelessness

You can be homeless and not even realise it. 62% of respondents were hidden homeless on the day they were surveyed and 92% had experienced hidden homelessness (source: The hidden truth about homelessness, 2011).

Some people may think they're just couch surfing, but in reality, they are technically hidden homeless. Sofa surfing is the practice of staying temporarily in the home of a family or individual, known as a host, who is not expecting payment in return for the hospitality.

Many people live on couches and floors with friends or family members when their own homes are no longer safe or habitable, but others have no choice but to seek out strangers willing to let them stay on their sofas while they try to get back on their feet.

Some people who couch surf do so voluntarily because they enjoy living with other people; however, many others do so out of necessity due to financial distress or other issues facing them at home (such as domestic violence). Find out more about the various causes of homelessness here. 

Couch surfing does not always lead directly to homelessness. It can also be seen as temporary housing for those who cannot afford housing for one reason or another. But there is no way around the fact that this type of living arrangement will only work if everyone involved agrees upon it freely and openly.

Sleeping on the streets

Sleeping on the streets is one of the most common forms of homelessness. There were an estimated 4,751 people sleeping rough in England on a single night in the Autumn of 2017. (source: Rough Sleepers Statistics Autumn 2017, England). People who sleep rough do so in parks, doorways, under bridges and other public places. 

You may come across people sleeping rough who are bedding down for the night in a cardboard box or tent or inside their car or van. They may even be camping out under an umbrella or tarpaulin tent structure that they have set up on land beside you.

The reasons why individuals become homeless are as varied as people themselves.

  • Some have lost their homes due to health issues, relationship breakdowns and domestic violence.
  • Others are aged pensioners who can no longer afford to pay rent on their own homes after losing employment.
  • Some simply don’t get along with family members anymore and have nowhere else to go;

While many younger people find themselves socially excluded from their communities because they lack access to education opportunities (such as staying at home). Which would help them find work later on in life.

This makes it hard for them not only when trying to find somewhere affordable enough for rent. But also when looking for social inclusion amongst others like themselves. Where there aren't any other options left open except maybe finding somewhere else off-limits like those areas mentioned above without proper permits issued beforehand such as camping grounds.

Living in hostels and other non-permanent housing

78,930 households were in temporary accommodation on 31 December 2017. 60,520 of these households included dependent children and/or pregnant women.

There were 120,510 children or expected children within these families (Statutory homelessness and prevention and relief, October to December 2016: England). Hostels are a type of accommodation provided by charities, councils and housing associations. They provide short to medium term temporary accommodation for people who have nowhere else to stay.

Hostels are usually used by people with no permanent housing, or who have moved away from their homes but need somewhere to stay while they look for somewhere more permanent.

They can also be used by people who have been evicted from their current accommodation because they have fallen into rent arrears or because they have breached the terms of their tenancy agreement (for example, antisocial behaviour).


Squatting is the act of not paying rent or buying a home and instead, occupying a property. It's also called "adverse possession," "homesteading," or "home invasion."

You can be a squatter if you:

  • Live in a house without paying rent or buying it legally.
  • Live in the house without permission from its owner.
  • Live in the house when no one else lives there (even if it's not your own).

At risk of homelessness

People who are at risk of homelessness include:

  • Those who live in a home that is unaffordable and/or substandard, such as those living in overcrowded conditions, with severe physical health problems, or with a disability.
  • People who are waiting for an affordable home to become available to them. This can be due to being on the waiting list for public housing or community housing (state government-run).

Living in cars, vans and tents

If you live in a car, van or tent, you're part of the so-called "vehicular" homeless population. This type of homelessness is still considered transitional homelessness and can be prevented if people have access to safe, affordable housing that meets their needs.

There are many reasons why someone would choose to live in their vehicle. Some people do it by choice because they prefer the mobility that comes with living on the road; others have no other option due to financial struggles or mental health challenges.

You can find vehicular homeless people all over the world—it's not just an urban problem anymore! One example is Seattle, which has seen a 57 percent increase in its vehicular homeless population since 2013.

This is due to rising rents and a lack of affordable housing options for low-income individuals and families with children who need support services such as case management programs before transitioning into permanent supportive housing units (PSH). Waning public assistance programs also compound the issue.

Refugees and asylum seekers

Refugees and asylum seekers are homeless if they do not have a legal right to live in the country they’re in. They may be waiting for their claim to be granted, or they may not have been allowed into the country at all. Because of this, refugees and asylum seekers cannot access benefits, housing or healthcare that most people would be entitled to if they were legally resident in their host country.


As you can see, there are many different types of homelessness. Understanding each type of homelessness leads to better support and a better view of chronic homelessness as a whole.

Building a picture of the number of people who are homeless is complicated. This is due to the different ways each type is counted and the limitations of each approach.

The further question of what we can do about homelessness is not an easy one. There are still steps that we can take as individuals and as organisations to try and end homelessness, you can find out more here.