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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 prospect of rising homelessness in autumn 2021, The Big Issue has launched the Stop Mass Homelessness campaign. Thousands of people who have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic risk losing their home after support introduced during the pandemic such as the £20 universal credit increase and the furlough scheme was withdrawn. The Big Issue is battling to help them keep their home.

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?

How many people are homelessness in the UK?

Overall, Crisis estimated that around 200,000 people were experiencing core homelessness – the most severe and immediate forms of homelessness – in England in 2020. The charity’s Homelessness Monitor series also covers Scotland and Wales but there are currently no equivalent figures representing the current state of homelessness following the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is difficult to come up with a catch-all figure on just how many people are homeless at any one time because there are various measures to take into consideration.

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The statutory homelessness figures tell us how many households have contacted councils for help with homelessness. 

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

The Everyone In scheme – which brought rough sleepers off the streets to provide them shelter in hotels and other emergency accommodation during the pandemic – had a big impact on the figures. The programme saw a shift in the number of people moving off the street and into temporary accommodation. 

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Reacting to the statistics when they released in September 2021, Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said there is a need for a focus on Housing First: “These statistics make painfully clear that you cannot free people from the cycle of homelessness without a proper home and crucially, the support they need to keep it long term.”

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

Like in England, Crisis also produces a Homelessness Monitor report for Scotland. Experts found statutory homelessness fell 13 per cent year-on-year during the pandemic with 27,571 households needing assistance with homelessness in 20/21.

But the number of households in temporary accommodation was at a decade high of more than 13,000 in March 2021, up from around 11,00 two years previously.

However, Crisis concluded that core homelessness – the most severe and immediate forms of the issue, such as rough sleeping – was substantially lower in Scotland than in England and Wales, affecting 0.57 per cent of households compared to 0.94 per cent and 0.66 per cent respectively.

The latest statutory homelessness figures for Wales showed 25,452 households were helped by councils in 2019-20, before the pandemic.

As for the number of people rough sleeping, the latest official count found a total of 2,688 people were estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2020 in England, down 37 per cent on the 4,266 people recorded in 2019.

However, the number of people sleeping rough has grown steadily since 2010 when 1,247 were counted living on the streets.

The Government can’t keep guessing about the number of rough sleepersLorrita Johnson, The Salvation Army’s director of homelessness services

<span style="font-weight: 400;">Lorrita Johnson, The Salvation Army’s director of homelessness services</span>

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.

In reaction to the latest count, Lorrita Johnson, The Salvation Army’s director of homelessness services, said: “The Government can’t keep guessing about the number of rough sleepers, and a more robust recording method is needed so that funding can be properly allocated to cover the costs local councils are facing for homelessness support.”

The Combined Homelessness and Information Network 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 – 11,018 people were seen on London’s streets by outreach workers in 2020/21. This is an increase on the 10,726 people spotted in the previous year while figures show the rough sleeping has almost doubled in the English capital in the last 10 years.

In Wales, 405 people slept rough across the country between October 14 and 27 2019 in their last annual rough sleeping count. The official 2020 count was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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.

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And, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the face of homelessness across the UK with councils in England taking in 37,000 people across the UK to protect them from the virus, including Big Issue vendor Craig O’Shea. A number of ex-rough sleepers still remain in emergency accommodation across the UK while long-term homes are sourced.

But some face returning to the streets, according to Homeless Link. In July 2021, the group warned 2,512 people currently in emergency accommodation in London could face rough sleeping once more as the Everyone In scheme was wound down.

What percentage of the UK is homeless?

The percentage of people who are homeless is very small compared to the wider population. 

At last official count, 66.7 million people lived in the UK and when we talk about homelessness, at least pre-Covid-19, we are talking about a few hundred thousand people. For example, Shelter’s 2019 estimate that 280,000 people are homeless in England means that one in every 200 people find themselves without a home.

However, with the UK the fifth 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. Research for Crisis in 2015 puts the cost of a single person sleeping rough in the UK for 12 months at £20,128 while successful intervention costs £1,426. To put this in context, the average private school place in Britain costs £11,565 per year.

Evidence shows that people who experience homelessness for three months or longer cost on average £4,298 per person to NHS services, £2,099 per person for mental health services and £11,991 per person in contact with the criminal justice system.

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.

There are virtually no rough sleepers in the country now, while 4,600 single people and 264 families were found to be homeless – but not on the streets – at last count in 2019.

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 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.

However this year there is a need to go further. The Big Issue is working to prevent thousands of people hit by the pandemic from falling into homelessness in the months ahead through the Stop Mass Homelessness campaign. Sign our petition and find out how you can take action now here.

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.

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