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

As of March this year, 104,510 households in England were recorded as living in temporary accommodation, including 65,000 households with children. The sheer number of people living in temporary accommodation has seen councils warning that they could be “overwhelmed” following an emergency summit hosted by the District Councils Network.

Another method of counting how many people experience homelessness is keeping track of how many households contacted councils for help, known as statutory homelessness. A total of 298,430 households needed support from councils in 2022-23, up 6.8% in a year and 3% above levels seen before the pandemic in 2019-20.

No-fault (section 21) evictions are a leading driver of homelessness and the Westminster government promised to ban them in 2019. 

Ministers are set to axe no-fault evictions in the upcoming Renters’ Reform Bill – although that has been indefinitely delayed until courts are reformed – but rates are still surging in the meantime.

Statutory homelessness figures released in October showed 24,260 households needed support from councils to avoid homelessness last year after being served with a Section 21 eviction notice. That’s a 22% increase on the previous year.

Labour has warned 30,840 households face homelessness due to a no-fault eviction if they are not scrapped before the last possible date for the next general election in January 2025.

As for Scotland’s latest official homelessness statistics, 32,342 households were assessed as homeless in 2022-23, including 36,848 adults and 16,263 children.

In Wales, 12,537 households were assessed as homeless or owed a duty by local authorities to help them secure accommodation between April 2022 and March 2023. That’s a 7% increase on 2021-22. A total of 11,185 individuals were also reported to be in temporary accommodation in Wales as of August 2023.

As for the number of people rough sleeping, the latest official count estimated a total of 3,069 people were sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2022 in England, up by a quarter on the 2,440 in 2021. The rise was the first recorded since 2017’s peak.

However, the number of people sleeping rough has grown steadily since 2010, and the number of people counted in 2022 was 74% higher than the 1,768 people spotted 12 years earlier.

The latest data shows 2,893 people were estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in England in June 2023. The government figures show a rise of 446 people or 18% since the previous quarter in March 2023, and a rise of 445 people or 18% since the same time in 2022.

Traditionally, 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.

Efforts are underway to improve the quality of data on street homelessness. The government has pledged to publish management information on a quarterly basis as part of its strategy to end rough sleeping in England by 2024. However, a panel of experts from the Kerslake Commission has warned ministers are likely to miss that target.

The latest data shows 2,447 people were estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in March 2023. The official figures show a rise of 342 people or 16% since the previous quarter in December 2022 and a rise of 641 people or 35% since the same time in 2022.

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, Chain annual figures show a much higher number of people sleeping rough and that number has increased sharply in the last year.  A total of 10,053 people were spotted sleeping rough on the streets of London between April 2022 and March 2023.

More recent quarterly Chain statistics counted 4,068 people sleeping rough in London between July and September 2023 with half of those new to the streets.

In Wales, the official count has been suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic but recent management statistics show that an estimated 167 people are sleeping rough around the country as of August 2023.

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.

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In 2022-23, 2,438 households reported sleeping rough in the three months before making a homelessness application to their local council while 1,500 households said they’d been rough sleeping the night before. Both of these figures are lower than before the pandemic.

Both of these figures are lower than any previously recorded since records began in 2002/03.

Counting the number of people rough sleeping is notoriously difficult. Often people can be hidden meaning they are  missing from statistics.

This is a particular issue for women who face an increased risk of violence and often choose not to bed down on the streets, instead seeking shelter in places like transport hubs, cafes or even choosing to walk all night instead.

A coalition of homelessness and women’s organisations in London joined forces to tackle the issue in October 2022. The resulting women’s rough sleeping census found 154 women, including trans and non-binary women, sleeping rough in London in a week.

That number was higher than previously thought with an extra 71 women found across 13 London boroughs when the data was compared to the latest official rough sleeping count. Organisers believed the number could be even higher.

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

The Office for National Statistics carried out a review into the scale of hidden homelessness across the UK in March 2023 but statisticians noted that the available information means “it is not currently possible to estimate the true scale of hidden homelessness across the UK”.

However, the review did lay out the many types of hidden homelessness, including sofa surfing with friends or relatives, living in unconventional structures like mobile homes or a tent or overcrowded accommodation or squatting in disused buildings.

ONS statisticians also revealed that women, young people and people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to experience hidden homelessness and, therefore, missing from homelessness statistics. This could mean they are unable to access support to help them into a secure, permanent home.

Which country has no homeless people?

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.

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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.

Finland was cited as a benchmark as Prince William launched his Homewards programme to end homelessness.

The Westminster government announced it was extending rough sleeping pilots in the West Midlands, Manchester and Merseyside as part of the strategy to end rough sleeping by 2024.

England is lagging behind its smaller neighbours in Scotland and Wales, according to Crisis’ Homelessness Monitor report covering Great Britain.

England has much higher rates of the worst forms of homelessness than the devolved nations and more of its homelessness spending is spent on temporary accommodation compared to prevention and support, academics found

What can you do about it?

If you see someone sleeping rough in England and Wales, send details of where and when you see them, as well as a brief description of the person, to StreetLink using their website. 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.

This article is updated regularly with the latest information.

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