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Not all people facing homelessness encounter the same challenges and some people facing homelessness are not as visible as others. It’s about more than sleeping rough on the streets.

Homelessness is a solvable problem – but it’s also a growing problem that can be experienced in many ways and often hidden from society, but it cannot be ignored any longer. It’s devastating, dangerous and isolating. Everyone needs a home of their own to live a healthy life in which they can realise their potential.

Being Homeless

Being homeless is not necessarily sleeping rough but being in unstable accommodation such as sofa-surfing, a hostel, B&B, or another type of temporary home

Sleeping rough

It is the most visible, extreme, and damaging form of homelessness.

People who are sleeping rough will sometimes sleep outside on the streets or in buildings not designed for human living/ habitation such as stairwells, stations, cars, in doorways, parks or bus shelters. People who sleep rough often have complex physical and mental health needs; they may be struggling with addiction and are often very vulnerable.

 It is a very harsh way of life: it is difficult, isolating, at times very intimidating and the majority find it very hard to get out of.

Rough sleeping accounts for less than 1% of homelessness, not including the single homeless people living in hostels, shelters and temporary supported accommodation.
In 2018, the average life expectancy of a rough sleeper was just 44 years for men and 42 years for women

Rough sleeping count

Every year the government requires every local authority to count how many people are sleeping rough on a particular night.

Home Links showed that 3069 people were estimated to be sleeping rough on a typical night. Data such as this is most useful for showing trends about increases and decreases each year.

Sofa surfing

Moving between friends’ or relatives’ houses, better known as the term “sofa-surfing” with no permanent/long-term accommodation is still a form of homelessness and can also be known as “hidden homelessness.”

 Sofa-surfing and rough-sleeping is becoming increasingly more common and at this rate is bound to be the norm for many vulnerable young people who find themselves without a safe place to stay.  

What does hidden homelessness?

‘Hidden homeless’ households – people who may be considered homeless, but their situation is not ‘visible’ either on the streets or in official statistics.

Many people who become homeless aren’t counted in official figures and will likely not ask for, or be entitled to, help with housing, and therefore won’t receive the support they desperately need and deserve.

Many choose to “sofa-surf” with family/friends, or sleep out of sight in hostels, squats, public transport or other insecure and unsuitable accommodation.

Hidden homelessness among young people.

Young people are always experiencing homelessness but hiding from society and are usually living in temporary or unsafe accommodation. 

The young people we support rarely have a network to turn to for help, nor do they have the life skills or vocabulary needed to reach out to ask for the right support. Many are embarrassed and ashamed of their situation.

Hidden homelessness can leave young people vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation.

The Crisis Monitor attempts to estimate the number of hidden homeless; two groups that are of particular note are women and rural homeless.

How many people in the UK are homeless?

The answer to this question is not straight forward; the numbers of people currently homeless or at risk of homelessness are constantly changing and it is important to be clear about what definition of homelessness is being used.

The latest data shows 2,447 people were estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in March 2023, these 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.

In the year 2019-20 288,470 households were owed assistance from councils in England to prevent or relieve homelessness.

In 2020 there were an estimated 227,000 households experiencing the worst forms of homelessness in Great Britain – including people having to sofa surf, sleep rough, or stay in unsuitable accommodation like B&Bs.

It is worth noting that in March 2020 when it came to getting everyone inside shelter because of COVID, 33,000 people were identified.

Often people without homes are hidden from regular data because they are sofa surfing or sleeping in cars.

In December 2019 Shelter estimated that 280,000 people were homeless in England. In 2022 in London for the first time a separate census was carries out of women sleeping rough.

The average age of death for people experiencing homelessness is 46 for men and 42 for women and people sleeping on the street are almost 17 times more likely to have been victims of violence.

Shelter’s detailed analysis of official homelessness figures and responses to a Freedom of Information request shows that one in 208 people in England are without a home. New research from Shelter shows at least 271,000 people are recorded as homeless in England, including 123,000 children.

Research that we carried out in 2013 showed that 43% of people who slept rough for the first time had problems with alcohol or drug use. For some people that was a contributing factor to them becoming homeless; for others, it was a symptom of trying to cope with other problems that they faced.

Black people are three times more likely to experience homelessness.

What is the main cause of homelessness in the UK?

There are various reasons cause homelessness, these are generally the most common situations in which people become homeless. While each person’s story is unique, this can result from individual circumstances, there are some factors and social issues contribute to people becoming homeless and explains why people face homelessness. These can be either structural issues or individual circumstances and are often interconnected. The immediate cause of someone’s homelessness can often be put down to a variety of reasons.

  • For people becoming homeless the cost of affording a new home was either too high in the private rented sector or felt out of reach because of the enormous length of waiting lists for social housing.
  • Short contracts, unfair evictions, and sky-high rents mean people struggle to keep a roof over their head.
  • Eviction from a privately rented home is one of the leading causes of homelessness.
  • For others who are vulnerably housed, housing shortages and changes to the welfare benefits system can mean that their housing situation is very precarious.
  • Changes to housing costs and welfare reforms leading to homelessness and homelessness services have a limited capacity to help.
  • Might have reached the end of a privately rented Assured Shorthold Tenancy.
  • The cost and shortage of housing can make it difficult to find a new home.
  • The constant, strong pressure of high rents and low wages can build up on people.
  • A sudden increase in pressure, like falling ill or losing their job, can force them into homelessness.
  • The huge shortage of affordable housing across many areas in Britain means that levels of the worst forms of homelessness were already high before the cost-of-living crisis, and many households were trapped in temporary accommodation.
  • Many homeless people face personal issues and cannot access support.
  • Because of personal problems, bereavement, relationship breakdown or financial strain.
  • Poor mental/physical health issues which wider social and economic factors can exacerbate the issue and homelessness is complex, but it is not inevitable.
  • Many people who become homeless have traumatic experiences during childhood.
  • Sometimes it was sexual or physical abuse; other times it was an unstable environment, such as moving between foster homes.
  • For some people, these experiences put them at risk early on.
  • Some people we work with say that their early experiences led them to become dependent on drugs or alcohol while still in their teens.
  • Leaving care, particularly at a young age or living in unstable temporary accommodation due to abuse a home.
  • Their family and friends are no longer able or willing to accommodate/support them.
  • We also work with people who may face adult literacy or numeracy, language barriers, feel unconfident in the skills they offer, or don’t recognise their resilience and strengths.

What are different types of homelessness?

Different types of homelessness and some of the legal framework.

Since the Homelessness Reduction Act, every council has had an obligation to submit statutory homelessness figures. These tell us how many households have contacted councils for help with homelessness. The statutory homelessness figures tell us how many households have contacted councils for help with homelessness.

In the year 2019-20 288,470 households were owed assistance from councils in England to prevent or relieve homelessness. 

Priority Need

‘Priority need’ is defined as households including those with dependent children, pregnant women, people with disabilities and those threatened with homelessness due to an emergency e.g. a flood, and those who are particularly vulnerable.

Local authorities have a duty to find a home for families or individuals approaching them who fit a ‘priority need’ criteria.

 These households are initially offered temporary housing such as private sector housing, nightly paid accommodation or B&Bs.

 This should be a precursor to finding a more permanent solution.

Individuals experiencing homelessness, individuals or couples without dependent children who are homeless but don’t meet ‘priority need’ criteria do not qualify for accommodation from their local authority. Many stays in short-term accommodation, such as hostels or supported accommodation provided by homelessness charities, sleep rough or remain hidden. Under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, councils have a duty to prevent or relieve the homelessness of all eligible people threatened with homelessness within 56 days.

Emergency accommodation – a place in a shelter or hostel

Longer-term accommodation – independent living or social housing. If possible, you should approach the council you have a local connection to, usually in the area you’ve most recently lived.

Homelessness Reduction Act 2017

Under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, councils have a duty to prevent or relieve the homelessness of all eligible people threatened with homelessness within 56 days. Individuals experiencing homelessness, individuals or couples without dependent children who are homeless.

What is the impact of homelessness?

On a global scale, poverty is one of the most significant root causes of homelessness. Stagnant wages, unemployment, and high housing and healthcare costs all play into poverty. Being unable to afford essentials like housing, food, education, and more greatly increases a person’s or family’s risk. Not having a home as a stable and secure base can make it harder for people to find a job, stay healthy and maintain relationships.

People often experience feelings of isolation, increasing their chances of taking drugs or experiencing mental health problems.

Often issues that people believe cause homelessness are actually a result of homelessness, such as substance abuse and poor mental health.

Evidence suggests that the longer someone is homeless, the more complex their problems become and the more difficult it can be to get back on their feet.

Physical Health Issues

People with no home often have complex health needs. The life expectancy of homeless people was 46 years for men, 43 years for women; this compares to 76 years for men and 81 years for women in the general population.

A recent study found that among a sample of homeless hostel residents in London, levels of frailty are comparable to 89-year-olds in the general population. The residents had an average of seven long-term health conditions, far higher than people in their 90s. Those without a home are substantially more likely to report having chronic diseases such as asthma, chronic COPD, heart problems and stroke.

Access to healthcare is only possible when someone is registered with a GP. Unfortunately, many GPs require an address to register an individual, which can be a huge barrier to accessing services. Turning someone away because they don’t have an address is now unlawful, but sadly it still happens too often.  Life on the streets can be a demeaning, humiliating and, at times, dehumanizing experience. Clearly, living without material comforts is only one part of the plight. The mental struggle caused by isolation and abuse is often an even more difficult burden.

Homelessness is the result of many social ills including poverty, unaffordable housing, unemployment, untreated mental illness, domestic violence, lack of social safety nets, incarceration and family disintegration, among others. Understanding the complexity of the problem will lead to a positive shift in attitudes and intentions toward homelessness, eventually resulting in increased support for changes in social, political and economic policies.

Poor mental health is widespread among people who are homeless or sleeping rough. Over 40% of people we work with have a mental health issue. Many, however, may never have had access to adequate treatment or support.

How does homelessness affect young people?   

As homelessness takes many forms, the effects on young people can be varied Without adequate support, the impact on a young person’s physical and mental health can be catastrophic.    

Research shows physical effects of living in temporary arrangements included fatigue due to poor and irregular sleep patterns, weight loss, and health issues connected to drugs and alcohol; young people also said it often made them feel ‘worthless’ or ‘pathetic.’ 

Mental health issues have been reported in over half (54.1%) of homeless young people. Additionally, around 95% of young people using our services, identify as needing help with their mental health.    

How we help young people experiencing homelessness   

Every young person we meet is unique, and so is the support we offer them. We listen carefully to each young person’s story, build their trust, and help them plan to move forward. We provide emergency and long-term accommodation, mental health counselling, and help with accessing housing and financial support. We help to build life skills and provide help with education, training, and job applications. We stay with them on their journey for as long as it takes.   

The recent increases in the cost of living mean many more young people are at risk of hidden homelessness. The demand for our basic services, such as emergency accommodation and mental health support, is growing, meaning our resources are stretched, but we will continue to support young people to ensure they are able to leave homelessness behind for good.   

Worried about paying your rent?

If you’re worried about paying your rent, you should speak to advisory organisations such as Citizen’s Advice, Step Change or Money Helper. They’ll be able to help you look into options like debt management plans or direct you to help available to you.

Contact housing organisations.

If you’re in a housing crisis, sleeping rough should be a last resort. If you currently have a home or accommodation, try to do what you can to keep it.

  • Talk to your council and see what help they could offer you.
  • Call your bank or creditors to see what financial help might be possible.
  • Contact Shelter, a homelessness and housing advice charity, to see what help is available to you.


Shelter will be able to help you understand your rights, access your needs, and help you to explore the options available to you. You can contact Shelter’s Housing advice helpline on 0808 800 4444 (free from landlines and on most mobile networks), or by visiting their website.

Taking the first step is important as it may mean you have more options.

Some useful links

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