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Housing

How many people are homeless in the UK? And what can you do about it?

Knowing the scale of the issue is vital to understanding how to solve it

The scale of homelessness is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify. There are many different types of homelessness, for starters. It’s not just rough sleeping — there are people trapped in temporary accommodation or hostels and shelters.

And it is not always a visible problem. Hidden homelessness, also known as sofa surfing, is virtually impossible to count as people staying at friends or relatives homes are out of sight and often don’t consider themselves to be homeless.

The Big Issue is committed to tackling poverty and preventing homelessness. With the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis left in its wake, scores of UK households remain at risk of falling into homelessness.

It is vital that we have an accurate idea of how many people are homeless in the UK – if you don’t know how many people need help, how can you help them?

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How many people are homelessness in the UK?

Overall, Crisis estimated that around 227,000 people were experiencing the worst forms of homelessness – rough sleeping, sleeping in vans and sheds, and stuck in B&Bs – across England, Scotland and Wales in 2021.

But homelessness is difficult to quantify. There are many different types of homelessness.

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One method of counting how many people experience homelessness is keeping track of how many households contacted councils for help with homelessness, known as statutory homelessness.

English councils helped 268,560 households to prevent or relieve homelessness between April 2020 and March 2021.

The most recent statutory homelessness figures in England found 74,230 households required support from local councils between January and March 2022. That represented a 10 per cent rise on the last three months of 2021 sparking concern over the impact the cost of living crisis could have on low-income households.

Renters were shown to be particularly vulnerable in the statistics with 6,400 households judged to be at risk of a ‘no-fault’ eviction – the highest since records began in 2018.

No-fault evictions are a leading driver of homelessness and the Westminster government promised to ban them in 2019. Since then, almost 230,000 private renters have received a section 21 notice, according to Shelter, amounting to one every seven minutes. Ministers are set to axe no-fault evictions in the upcoming Renters Reform Bill.

As for Scotland’s latest official homelessness statistics, the number of applications to local authorities for help with homelessness declined during the pandemic.

In total, just over 26,000 households were recorded in the homelessness system in September 2021, down from 27,036 in April 2020. There was a seven per cent drop in the number of households living in temporary accommodation too, falling from 14,151 in September 2020 to 13,192 a year later.

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In Wales, 13,161 households were assessed as homeless and were owed council support to help them into secure accommodation. This was a six per cent increase on 2019-20, although the pandemic has had an impact on the figures.

As for the number of people rough sleeping, the latest official count estimated a total of 2,440 people were sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2021 in England, down 10 per cent on the 2,688 people recorded in 2020.

However, the number of people sleeping rough has grown steadily since 2010 and despite four consecutive years of falling numbers there, the current figures are 38 per cent higher in 2022 than they were 12 years ago.

And the official rough sleeping figures are often thought to be a considerable underestimate as they rely on single-night counts and estimates by local authorities.

Reacting to the most recent count, Loritta Johnson, The Salvation Army’s director of homelessness services, said the figures should be “met with caution”.

“These government snapshot figures only cover who was sleeping rough on one particular night in England during the autumn and therefore are limited and should be met with caution,” said Johnson. “The Salvation Army is calling for reforms to data collection, and for more robust figures to be used to measure homelessness in England, much like the quarterly Chain figures for London, so we all have a true scale of reality of rough sleeping across the UK.”

The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (Chain) is thought to be a more accurate method. This tracks the flow of rough sleeping over a longer period with multiple agencies reporting contact with people on the streets. However it only currently operates in London.

Nevertheless, their annual figures show a much higher number of people sleeping rough although there has been a decline in the last year. The 8,239 rough sleepers spotted on London’s streets between April 2021 and March 2022 was a quarter lower than the 11,018 people recorded in the previous year. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan hailed the progress but warned the cost of living crisis “threatened to reverse these hard-won gains”.

That warning rang true in July 2022 when the latest quarterly Chain figures showed just under 3,000 people were spotted on the streets in the English capital between April and June. That represented a 10 per cent rise on the numbers recorded between January and March.

In Wales, the official count has been suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic but recent management statistics show that around 128 people are sleeping rough around the country as of September 2021.

And while Scotland doesn’t use the same method as England and Wales. 

Scottish councils measure how many people apply to them for help with rough sleeping. In 2020/21, 2,437 households reported sleeping rough in the three months before applying for health while 1,471 said they had stayed on the streets the night before contacting their local authority.

People who might be described as “hidden homeless” are often slipping through the cracks. Crisis has estimated that as many as 62 per cent of single homeless people do not show up on official figures.

What percentage of the UK is homeless?

England made up the large majority of the 227,000 people who experience the worst forms of homelessness in Britain.

There is a higher level of homelessness across England generally, with 0.86 per cent of households experiencing the worst forms of homelessness compared to 0.69 per cent in Wales and 0.57 per cent in Scotland.

However, with the UK the sixth biggest economy in the world, it is an issue that can be tackled when there is political will to do so, as the response to homelessness during the Covid-19 pandemic has proven.

As well as the humanitarian and moral reasons to ensure that everyone is housed, ending homelessness also makes financial sense. Dealing with poverty and homelessness and the associated issues around them is extremely expensive.

It is far cheaper to prevent people becoming homeless – or get them securely accommodated as quickly as possible. The Big Issue found that failing to pay off £360m in rent arrears racked up during the pandemic could cost the economy as much as £2.6bn a year if 250,000 people lose their homes. That takes into account the costs to the NHS, the criminal justice system as well as costs to local authorities and homelessness services.

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Which country has no homeless?

Homelessness is an issue that affects every country and there are different approaches to tackling the issue too.

Finland has perhaps come closest to solving the problem of street homelessness. Their adoption of the Housing First model over the last 30 years has seen rough sleepers given a home alongside intensive wraparound support to help them adapt to their new surroundings and to deal with issues like addiction or mental health problems.

The Housing First model has become a big part of the UK’s response to homelessness and has proven particularly successful in Scotland with England and Wales developing programmes.

But the Finnish success story is the result of a 30-year commitment by successive governments and it remains to be seen whether the Housing First model can play such a significant role in ending homelessness in the UK.

There are growing calls from the homelessness sector for the Westminster government to step up its support for Housing First with a national strategy.The plea was also at the heart of the Kerslake Commission’s findings – an independent report into the Covid-19 response to homelessness and rough sleeping.

What can you do about it?

If you see a rough sleeper send details of where and when you see them, as well as a brief description of the person, to StreetLink using their website, app or phone line. StreetLink is operated in partnership by Homeless Link and St Mungo’s. Scotland has no centralised service so you should check for contact details of your local council.

Alerts are monitored by volunteers at St Mungo’swho check information and forward them on to outreach teams. Every day hundreds of alerts are received by StreetLink.

And, of course, for more than 30 years The Big Issue has been on the frontline offering a way out, and one of the best things you can do is to buy this magazine every week, take your copy and support your vendor as they work hard to earn their way out of the poverty trap.

You can help people help themselves out of homelessness by supporting your local vendor and signing up for a subscription to The Big Issue, where every purchase goes towards supporting The Big Issue’s mission to help the most vulnerable people in the UK to improve their lives.

This article is updated regularly with the latest information.

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