When did homelessness begin in the UK?

Aug 30, 2022
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Homelessness has always been an issue in the UK. The UK has seen a 169% increase in rough sleeping since 2010, according to the government's own data.

This is despite a commitment to eradicate rough sleeping by 2027 when the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force in 2018.

In this article, we explore the history of homelessness and how we can help solve the issue together. 

History of homelessness

There started to be a large number of homeless people in the UK during the Great Depression.

In the 1930s, many people became homeless in the UK as a result of the Great Depression and World War II. During this time, there was a shortage of affordable housing suitable for renting or buying. In 1932, there were just under 8 million houses in Britain, but by 1939 this number had fallen by 9% to around 7.5 million.

The Housing Act 1977 allowed local authorities to classify desirable areas as "red-line" areas and ban any new properties from being lived in by certain types of people - including those who were homeless or on low incomes.

This legislation effectively excluded people living on benefits from moving into these neighbourhoods. The policy came into effect during Margaret Thatcher's first term as Prime Minister (1979-90) which saw welfare payments slashed and waiting lists for social housing grow exponentially.

As well as long delays between application and acceptance onto waiting lists, other factors such as increased demand for rental accommodation following changes made under Thatcher’s administration meant more people were left without suitable homes to live in when they tried applying for council assistance later down New Labour years (1997 onwards).

Suitable accommodation was in high demand after World War II. After World War II, there was a housing shortage in the UK. Many people found themselves living in poor quality accommodation with little space or privacy.

After spending years away from home fighting, many veterans returned to find their houses destroyed by bombing and urban redevelopment schemes. In addition, more people were living in cities: after the war ended, many workers flocked to London and other major cities in search of jobs. Those who could afford it rented homes; some even lived in rooms with shared facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms.

The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977 helped to address homelessness statistics. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977 was introduced to help people who were homeless, or threatened with homelessness.

The act stated that all local authorities had to provide accommodation for homeless people and those at risk of homelessness. It also said that local authorities had to provide housing for young people aged between 16 and 21 who were leaving care, those on probation after being sentenced for a crime, and teenage parents who were pregnant or had children under the age of one year old.

80% of local councils have seen an increase in people seeking help since the Act of 1977

The majority of people who become homeless are not necessarily ‘homeless’ in the traditional sense, but rather find themselves short of money and forced to live in hostels or with friends. The average age at which people experience homelessness is 27 years old, while those aged 16-24 make up 40% of the total number of homeless people.

People sleeping rough increased by 169% between 2010 and 2017, according to the government's own data.

In December 2018, the charity Crisis warned that the number of people sleeping rough in England had risen by 30% in the previous year alone. The charity said it was a "moral outrage" that people were dying on our streets and urged ministers to do more to tackle what they described as "a national emergency".

The way society addresses the issue of homelessness has changed dramatically since the 1930s.

In 1931, there were just over 2 million people living in poverty in Britain. This number rose to almost 4 million by 1939. During this time, it wasn't uncommon for families or individuals to find themselves out on their luck and looking for somewhere to live.

People who had previously been able to make ends meet suddenly found themselves homeless when they lost their job or suffered from some other misfortune that meant they could no longer fund their homes on their own.

During the 1920s and 30s, there were many more people living with poor health than ever before—people who were unable to work due to illness often ended up being turned away from hospitals because they couldn't afford treatment costs or weren't allowed access unless they could prove they were earning enough money (which was rarely possible).

The number of homeless people worldwide has increased by 50% over the last three decades but countries like the UK which have traditionally had good social housing policies are still struggling with it today.

Why has homelessness increased in the UK?

Homelessness affects people from all walks of life and is caused by a range of factors including unemployment, low wages, high housing costs and family breakdowns.

These factors are compounded by a lack of social housing (affordable homes provided by councils) which means there aren't enough places for people who need them. Lack of options for young people looking for somewhere to live also contributes to homelessness among 18-24 year-olds.

This age group accounts for more than half (53%) of all newly accepted applications for temporary accommodation in England alone. In 2015/2016 there were over 300,000 households living in temporary accommodations such as hostels or B&Bs across England due to issues like overcrowding or difficulty paying their rent.

In the last five years, there have been drastic cuts to housing benefits and homelessness services. The government has cut funding for council housing and social housing. The government has also cut funding for temporary accommodation and homelessness prevention.

Read next: How much has homelessness increased in the UK?

The result is a situation where there are more people than ever struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, and more people living in unsuitable accommodations such as hostels or sofa surfing with friends because they don't have anywhere else to go.

Poverty is one of the biggest drivers of homelessness and when life events happen it pushes people to the brink. The statistics illustrate that breaking the cycle of homelessness is more difficult for some people than others due to losing a job, escaping an abusive relationship or experiencing discrimination.

Unless the UK government prioritises stable housing and the right support to help people keep a home, we will continue to see people trapped in the homelessness system.

The youth homeless in the UK has increased by an estimated two-fifths in five years, rising to more than 120,000. It's one of the main causes of homelessness in the UK.

What is the government doing to solve homelessness? 

Much of the policy and support in the UK, focuses on non-financial help to those who are homeless. 

Homelessness Reduction Act

The Homelessness Reduction Act is a new law that came into effect in England on 3 April 2018. The act places responsibilities on local authorities to make sure that all eligible households are assessed for their need for accommodation and support.

It also provides for an independent review of the situation within each council’s area after three years, with a view to identifying ways of improving outcomes further.

The Homelessness Reduction Act requires local authorities in England to carry out assessments of people who may be homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless within 56 days (reduced from 104).

If an assessment identifies someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming so, the authority has 28 days to help them find somewhere safe and secure to live (or prevented from being made homeless) – unless there are exceptional circumstances that mean this would not be possible within this timeframe.

In the first two months since its introduction (April – June 2018), almost 90% of all applications made under the new legislation were accepted – about 2% more than under previous guidance issued when homelessness prevention was last reviewed by the government back in 2012/13.

This shows how quickly people can get help through this new law because they now have a legal right as soon as they report themselves as vulnerable due to losing their home; many councils have not previously been able to offer this kind of protection without going through lengthy processes which could take months or even years depending on individual circumstances."

Government funding for local councils to tackle homelessness

One of the government's main ways of tackling homelessness is to provide funding for local councils. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) provides this money to help local councils tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in England, as well as to help people who are at risk of becoming homeless.

Rough Sleeping Strategy

The government has made it a key priority to reduce rough sleeping.

The Rough Sleeping Strategy is based on the recommendations of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which include:

  • Targets to reduce rough sleeping by 2022. The strategy sets out how we will help people who are at risk of becoming homeless or have recently become homeless to get accommodation and support as quickly as possible, with a focus on prevention and early intervention. This includes a range of measures to reduce the need for emergency accommodation, including working with local authorities where appropriate. The strategy also outlines how we can improve access to mental health services for people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness, which will help them deal with any mental health problems they may be facing that could make it difficult for them to live independently.

Task Force focused on rough sleeping and homelessness

The Taskforce is a group of experts from the government, charities and local authorities who are focused on helping people who are rough sleeping or homeless. The Taskforce has published a report which sets out how the government will work with local councils to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.

The government is continuously campaigning to tackle homelessness. The main way they're doing this is by working with local authorities, charities and other organisations to reduce the need for emergency accommodation, hostels and temporary accommodation.

Local authorities will be given more money so they can build more social housing and adapt existing properties for residential use.

In the long run, the government hopes that no one will have to seek temporary accommodation at all because everyone will have enough money from work or benefits (jobseeker's allowance) to afford their own home. But if you fall behind on rent payments or get evicted from your home because you didn't pay it back on time then you might find yourself homeless anyway!

Many things are going on, but more is needed.

After much research and consideration, Greater Change has developed an innovative model which does focus on breaking down the financial barriers of homelessness. 

Greater Change- a new way to approach 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 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. 


The way society addresses the issue of homelessness has changed dramatically since the 1930s.

The reasons for it have also evolved, with a focus on society’s role in creating people who are more likely to be homeless.

It is clear from our research that a new approach and new solutions are needed to deal with homelessness today, which is why Greater Change exists. Please consider donating here to help more people out of homelessness and into long-term stability. 

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