Homelessness in the UK: Estimating the scale of the problem

The Homelessness Reduction Act passed its final reading in the House of Commons last month and will now become law. By strengthening and broadening the statutory duty on public authorities to prevent and relieve homelessness, the Act has potential to tackle a persistent and intensifying social issue. This blog post explores the anticipated changes, and considers the extent to which this new legislation will address homelessness in England and Wales.

Homelessness is long-standing social problem that appears to be escalating. There are widespread consequences both for individuals affected and the wider community: one-third of rough sleepers in Westminster report having been physically attacked, and homelessness is linked with foodbank use. Health problems are highly prevalent: in 2014, 80 per cent of homeless people reported mental health problems, and 73 per cent reported physical health problems. The annual costs of homelessness to the public purse are estimated at £24,000 to £30,000 per person.

‘Homeless’ is most commonly used to describe rough sleepers – those visibly living on the streets – whose number has more than doubled in England since 2010, reaching 4,134 people in 2016. Alongside rough sleepers are the so-called ‘hidden homeless’: people staying with family or friends because they have no home of their own. No official data are collected, yet 15 per cent of UK adults in 2012 reported experiencing hidden homelessness over their lifetimes. Finally, the statutory homeless are households who are eligible for assistance from their local authority, because they are both unintentionally homeless and in priority need. Changes in reporting practices make it difficult to clearly identify trends, but year-on-year increases are evident from 2009 onwards, and further rises are expected.

The homelessness prevention and relief duties focus on helping those at risk of homelessness find suitable accommodation, and securing accommodation for people who have become homeless. Principally, the new legislation will relax previous rules on priority need status, intentionality and local connections, which is expected to increase help-seeking.


Figure 1: The proportion of households offered homelessness assistance is higher in Scotland (where priority need criteria no longer apply) than elsewhere in the UK. Source: Crisis

Under current laws, only households in priority need are legally entitled to assistance, which may discourage others from seeking help. Scotland abolished priority need criteria in 2012, and Figure 1 shows that in 2014, a larger proportion of households were offered assistance in Scotland than the remainder of the UK. The quality of assistance may also improve: in a mystery shopping exercise, applicants in priority need reported receiving better advice and assistance.

The relaxation of intentionality rules is also predicted to increase assistance-seeking. These rules have been criticised: for example, becoming homeless due to housing arrears is considered intentional homelessness, making such households ineligible for statutory support. Housing arrears accounted for 9 per cent of first single homeless experiences in 2014 and 4 per cent of statutory homelessness acceptances in 2015, so this change may increase assistance-seeking.

Assistance is currently confined to areas in which applicants have a local connection. Anecdotally, well-provisioned areas like Oxford and London are thought to attract applicants from elsewhere, placing pressure on local services, although this position is not empirically supported. Removing the local connection requirement may alternatively increase people’s freedom to pursue labour market opportunities.

The new legislation includes a co-operation clause in which the assistance duty can be ended if a person refuses suitable accommodation. This measure may be necessary, particularly in areas with highly pressured housing markets. Yet in some cases this change may force people to choose between accommodation they consider unsuitable (for example, because of the distance to their children’s schools), and losing provision for help. The duty may also end if a person ‘unreasonably and deliberately’ refuses to co-operate. This could inhibit support for the most vulnerable: evidence that homeless people are disproportionately likely to experience benefit sanctions suggests that they may also risk losing homelessness assistance. Preventive measures are needed to ensure this does not occur.

Overall, the Homelessness Reduction Act has potential to broaden the scope of homelessness assistance. In light of the risky behaviours – including committing crimes and engaging in sex work – used to secure accommodation, these changes are welcome. However, three features may inhibit its success. The first is costs: the exact value of support has not been finalised, but considerable funds are needed to meet the Act’s new commitments. Second, housing provision is inadequate: house-building does not match need, which coupled with landlords’ reluctance to house homeless people, will severely restrict the housing options available to homeless people. Finally, knowledge is important: many homeless people are unaware of the services available, so outreach programmes are needed to ensure that assistance reaches those in need. The new Act is therefore a step in the right direction, but some amendments are necessary or its success will be limited.


You can read more in our new briefing note here: CSI 29: Homelessness in the UK

Post by Elisabeth Garratt, 30th May 2017.