Homelessness the Facts & Figures

Homelessness – the numbers

1. Background

Explaining the world of homelessness to supporters, funders and friends is an important task for everybody working with homeless people and there are two frequently asked questions which, understandably, arise time after time. These are:

a) What are the reasons for people becoming homeless?

b) How many homeless people are there?

2. Statutory homeless figures

The confusion starts because often the first reference point is government statistics. The United Kingdom has a highly unusual safety net for people who become homeless, which is not simply based on the notion of rooflessness, or literal homelessness. A recent piece of research by the University of York [1] illustrates how our safety net is one of the most comprehensive in the world. In practice, homelessness legislation in this country means that a person can be in temporary accommodation and entitled under law to permanent housing from the state, whilst someone on the street sleeping rough may not be entitled to permanent housing from the state.

[1] An International Review of Homelessness and Social Policy (2007)

The important piece of legislation is the Housing Act 1996 (Part 7) which places a statutory duty on housing authorities (councils) to provide assistance to people who are homeless but a main duty of homelessness, that is, an obligation to re-house into permanent accommodation, towards only those individuals who are eligible for assistance because they are in ‘priority need’ groups. The priority need groups include households with dependent children, a pregnant woman, 16 and 17 year-olds, 18-20 year olds previously in care, people who are vulnerable because of a disability or age and others who are vulnerable as a result of being in care, custody, in HM forces or having to leave home because of a threat of violence.

The statutory safety net works very successfully where the proof of statutory rights is easy to establish; e.g. where you are required to prove that you have dependent children. It is less helpful where you have to prove not only circumstances, but vulnerability.  For example a person with a physical disability has to prove that their disability makes them vulnerable ‘so that they may suffer in a situation where another homeless person would be able to cope without suffering’.  A process of assessment is required to ascertain vulnerability and this is carried out by the local authority to which the person has applied.

The government provides quarterly homelessness statistics for England. The most recent statistics (to 30th June 2008) show that there are 74,690 households in temporary accommodation. Of these, 72% are families or pregnant women.  In contrast only 2% are people eligible for permanent housing because of old age. The most common reason for becoming homeless was because parents, relatives or friends were no longer able, or willing, to accommodate the person (35%). These percentage figures have been consistent over the last few years, whilst the overall number of households in temporary accommodation has been gradually falling.

The same set of statistics show that 4,261 ‘households’ approached councils for assistance with housing and were found to be homeless; that is, they were not entitled to occupy, or could not be expected to remain in, their accommodation. However, a main duty of homelessness was not owed by the local authority and therefore the applicant was not eligible for permanent housing (i.e. they were not in a priority group).  A further 2,131 applicants were considered to be homeless and to be in priority need.  However, they were deemed to be ‘intentionally homeless’ and therefore there was no requirement to find them permanent housing.  Intentionality arises where it is deemed that the person or household has deliberately done something that caused them to leave accommodation that they could otherwise have stayed in. The usual reasons are non-payment of rent or anti-social behaviour.

3. Rough sleeping figures

Rough sleeping figures are collected through local authority street counts and aggregated up to form a national (England) figure. Street counts are undertaken by local authorities where it is believed that they have more than ten rough sleepers.  Other local authorities are asked to estimate the number of rough sleepers in their area. The estimated figures are, however, not included in the total figure for England. There has been some criticism about the accuracy of street counts and as a result Communities and Local Government are wisely reviewing the guidance for undertaking counts.

The government’s most recent national headline figure for rough sleeping is 483 people sleeping rough in England (2008). This represents a massive 77% reduction from the June 1998 figure.  In London the figure is volatile and fluctuates from 200 to 300.

The street counts represent a snapshot of the number of people sleeping rough on a single night.  Rough sleepers move off the streets and new rough sleepers come onto the street.  Over a year, the figure is therefore much larger.  In London a database called CHAIN compiles information on all the rough sleepers who are met by street outreach teams.  In 2007-08, 3017 different individuals were met sleeping rough by the teams in London.  This is an increase of 7% in two years from 2005-06. As you will have grasped by now, most rough sleepers will not find there way into the statutory homeless figures.

4. Hostels

Apart from households in temporary accommodation and rough sleepers there are also people living in hostels who are perceived by many to be homeless, even if the do have a roof over their head. The number of people who use hostels over a year is very difficult to estimate as the level of bed-space ‘turnover’ would need to be established and this is almost impossible to do on a national basis with any reasonable degree of accuracy. According to the Resource Information Service (RIS) which produces a range of information on homelessness and housing issues including the ‘Hostels Directory’, there are 276 homeless accommodation projects in London with 16,686 bed-spaces. In the UK it is estimated that there are in total 40,000 hostel bed-spaces.

Turnover in hostels varies greatly, but it is reasonable to assume that at least 75,000 different individuals use hostels over a course of a year.  Again, hostel residents are unlikely to show up significantly in the statutory figures. Some hostel residents will also have slept rough so could be ‘double counted’ in the rough sleeping figures, but other hostel residents will never have slept rough.

5. ‘Hidden homeless’

The broader the definition given to ‘the homeless’, inevitably the more speculative becomes the figures given for the number of homeless people.  One commonly quoted figure is the number of hidden homeless, meaning that group which is not entitled to accommodation because they are not deemed by councils to be in priority need, yet have no accommodation that they are entitled to occupy or can reasonably continue to occupy. The hidden homeless figure is usually given as 400,000 but should be treated with caution.  Firstly, it includes rough sleepers and hostel residents, for whom a separate figure is given, above.  Secondly, it raises a bigger issue about how far someone can be defined as homeless simply as a consequence of their physical situation.  For example, the hidden homeless figure includes people who are forced to stay with family and friends for a period and are reliant on continued goodwill to sustain this arrangement (‘sofa surfers’). Should everyone in these circumstances be regarded as homeless?  Some argue that there is a big difference between, for example, a sofa surfer with few prospects and a crack habit and a sofa surfer who can, if necessary, fall back on parents with a good income and expect to find a well paid job in the near future without too much difficulty.

6. Summary of statistics

Statutory homelessness (England):

  • 74,690 households in temporary accommodation (up to June 2008)
  • 72% of acceptances are people with dependents or pregnant women
  • The main reason for a person or household becoming homeless is that relatives or friends are no longer able to accommodate them (35%)
  • Around 16,000 people annually are found to be homeless but not in priority need
  • Over 8,000 people annually are found to be homeless but not entitled to housing as a result of being intentionally homeless.

Rough sleepers

  • 483 people sleep rough on any one night in England (June 2008)
  • 200-300 people sleep rough on any one night in London
  • 3017 different people sleep rough over a year in London (2007-08)


  • 16,686 hostel bed-spaces in London
  • 40,000 hostel bed-spaces in United Kingdom
  • At least 75,000 individuals use hostels over a year

Hidden homeless

Estimated at 400,000.