Definition of Homelessness[1]

Many people only associate homelessness with sleeping on the streets, but this conceals the range and scale of the problem.

Homelessness exists in many different forms. Shelter works to ensure that everyone has the right to a decent, secure and permanent home, not simply a roof over their heads.

The reality is that sleeping on the streets is the most extreme form of homelessness. The vast majority of homeless people are families or single people who are not sleeping rough.

Some may be staying with relatives and friends on a temporary basis. Others live in temporary accommodation, such as bed and breakfast hotels, hostels, night shelters and refuges. For many, this means living in poor quality accommodation that is detrimental to their health and well-being. And in all cases, not having a permanent home causes stress and countless practical difficulties.

Legal Definition

Broadly speaking, the law defines someone as being homeless if they do not have a legal right to occupy accommodation, or if their accommodation is unsuitable to live in. This can cover a wide range of circumstances, including, but not restricted to, the following:

  • having no accommodation at all
  • having accommodation that is not reasonable to live in, even in the short-term (eg because of violence or health reasons)
  • having a legal right to accommodation that you cannot access (eg if you have been evicted illegally)
  • living in accommodation you have no legal right to occupy (eg living in a squat or staying with friends temporarily).

Local councils have a legal duty to provide advice and assistance to people who are legally defined as homeless or threatened with homelessness. However, not everyone who falls within the legal definition necessarily qualifies for temporary accommodation.

Homelessness overall picture

Shelter has carried out the most thorough analysis of homelessness in England. Unfortunately both Scotland and Wales do not have the same level of analysis at this stage, so the section is broken down into the three countries, England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland has not been included at this stage.


Shelter first carried a detailed study of the extent of homelessness in England in 2015 using the following criteria:

  • national government statistics on rough sleepers
  • statistics on those in temporary accommodation
  • the number of people housed in hostels
  • the number of people waiting to be housed by social services departments (obtained through Freedom of Information requests)

The charity insists the overall figure, 254,514, released to mark 50 years since its founding, is a "robust lower-end estimate". A further study in 2017 showed a large increase of homelessness to 307,000 an increase of 13,000 on the previous year. Studies prior to this were much more adhoc, but indicate a increase of approximately 15% in homelessness between 2012 and 2014 [1].

Martin Tett, the housing spokesman for the Local Government Association Housing, said in 2015 "that funding pressures, the lack of affordable housing, and rents that are rising above incomes were leaving many councils struggling to cope with rising homelessness across all areas of the country... Finding emergency housing for homeless people, particularly young or vulnerable people or those with families, is increasingly difficult for councils... Councils need powers and funding to address the widening gap between incomes and rents, resume their historic role as a major builder of new affordable homes and join up all local services - such as health, justice and skills. This is the only way to deliver our ambition to end homelessness" [2]. The Department for Communities and Local Government said "the government is investing over £500m during the course of this parliament to tackle homelessness. This includes protecting £315m for local authority homelessness prevention funding and £149m for central government funding." The figures for Social Housing and Housing Market show that this money was poorly planned and poorly spent. The outcome can be seen in a 17.1% increase in homelessness in 2 years and a 29% in homelessness since 2012.


To to be researched


To to be researched

Homelessness children


Homeless children in temporary housing saw a drop of about 6 thousand (7%) from 2010 until the end of 2011, following the trend of previous years. From 2012 to 2014 the increase in homeless children began to gain pace, increasing by 15% percent in two years. From 2014 until Q1 2018 the increase in child homelessness was a massive 32%

“But I think it’s important for all those who heard her question to be aware of this. She talks of 2,500 children in Wandsworth are waking up homeless on Christmas Day. Anybody hearing that will assume what that means is that 2,500 children will be sleeping on our streets. It does not. It does not mean that."

Theresa May responds to point raised on the number of homeless children at Christmas 2017

The overall increase in child homelessness since the Tories came to power in 2010 is 61% from 74,610 in 2010 to 131,000 in Qtr 4 2018 [1][2]. Of the homeless children 7% are living in Bed and Breakfast, 7% in hostels, 26% in nightly paid accomodation, 20% in HA stock, and 32% with private landlords.

When we look at the number of children in these types of accomodation, it is important to rememember these are not your holiday B&B. The accomodation is often sub-standard, overcrowded and with a lack of even a short term permanance. See the section Social Housing for more information of the 1.6 million children in Britain live in housing that is overcrowded, temporary, or run-down.


To be researched


To be researched

  1. Child homelessness in England rises to highest level in 12 years, new figures show, Independent, 13 December 2018:
  2. 130,000 homeless children to be in temporary lodgings over Christmas, Guardian, 5 December 2018:

Rough Sleepers


There has been a large increase in rough sleeping since 2010. This can be attributed to cuts in mental health services, a decline in social housing with growing waiting lists and thee overall unaffordability of housing. The yearly goverment survey [1] provides a snapshot for rough sleepers on a given night.

  • The autumn 2017 total number of rough sleepers counted and estimated was 4,751
  • That was up 617, or 15% from the autumn 2016 total of 4,134
  • The number of rough sleepers increased by 173, or 18% in London and 444 or 14% in the rest of England since autumn 2016
  • London represented 24% of the England total rough sleepers in autumn 2017. This is up from 23% of the England total in autumn 2016
  • 14% of rough sleepers were women, 20% were non-UK nationals and 8% were under 25 years old

Chart 1 provides an interesting insight into the overall trend in rough sleeping since 2010, but doesn't provide the whole picture. Research carried out by the Greater London Authority show much higher levels of rough sleepers.

Of those rough sleepers who had a support needs assessment recorded, 44% had alcohol support needs, 35% drug support needs and 47% mental health support needs, with 14% having all three needs and 23% having none of these three needs. No support needs assessment was recorded for 32% of rough sleepers.

Chart 2 from [2] shows much a higher number of rough sleepers. These figures represent Greater London alone. These figures are gathered over a much longer period and by constant monitoring by groups that support rough sleepers.

The Chain Dataset figures, while not showing the same increase in rough sleepers between 2016 and 2017 as the government figures, does show the same overall trend. Also the Chain dataset is looking at a more nuanced picture than simply who is on the street on one given night. It may well be that if shelter options are becoming overstretched that you will see an increase in those sleeping rough in one report on one night, while a report covering a larger period will see a much more even trend upwards as shelter options ebb and flow throughout the year.

The key thing to note is that the Chain Dataset shows that in London alone, the homeless figures are over 7 times the recorded government figures.


It is more difficult to provide the rough sleepers numbers for Scotland as there are no groups carrying out extensive research into the numbers. It does appear from official figures that rough sleeping saw a steady decline from 2010-15 before then seeing an increase of 10% within 2 years to 2682 by 2017. As rough sleeping measurement is not proactively recorded, but rather relies on the individual reporting themselves homeless, these figures could be understated.[3]


Data for Wales on rough sleeping is sketchy. The figures taken for 2017 as against 2016 show a approximately a 10% increase in a single year from 313 to 345. These numbers were very much a snapshot of those who came to the attention of care agencies and it should be viewed with scepticism that it records the full numbers. The figures show again a large swing upwards in rough sleepers.[4]

The only other official figures are for 2008 which showed an approximate number of rough sleepers as being in the range of 128 to 165 people. If we take the mid figure 146 we caan see that homelessnesshas more than doubled in the last 10 years.

Vunerable Women

There are only 6 women’s probation hostels providing a total of 112 beds (compared to 95 men’s hostels with 2100 beds). Women released from custody on licence who pose a higher or very high risk of serious harm will be placed in these hostels. However, women’s hostels also take medium-risk offenders because they need extra support and would benefit from the services available. These medium risk women currently make up a quarter of the residents in women’s hostels and so women’s hostels have a very different offender composition compared to the men’s hostels. Most residents in men’s hostels have served lengthy custodial sentences for serious violent and/or sexual offences.

Homeless women are among the most marginalised in society and many feel unsafe in the temporary housing provided by most charities, the charity St Mungos says. "Our recent peer-led research, ‘On My Own Two Feet’ highlighted that many homeless women do not want to stay in the only (mixed-sex) accommodation offered to them, so instead choose to sleep rough," Glew added. They are also more vulnerable to exploitation and tend to be more hidden when homeless. The charity is now calling on the government to deliver a new rough sleeping strategy that "understands and invests in women" [1][2].

  1. Women and Rough Sleeping, Joanne Bretherton and Nicholas Pleace, 2018: https://
  2. Women’s Hidden Homelessness, Homeless Link, Margaret Williams, 27 February 2018:

Real Life Suffering

Homeless woman Anne, 62, moved to a tree in a park 6 miles away 'because her bags made city centre look messy' before an arts event Daily Mirror, on twitter

Article: Why are councils so creative in making life unbearable for homeless people? [1]