The claim

“Whilst homelessness remains at a historic low, today’s figures underline how the effects of the worst recession for a generation continue to deliver difficult times for households up and down the country.”
Grant Shapps, 08 August 2011

The background

The latest government figures show that the number of homeless people in the UK has risen by 17 per cent.

On the face of it, that’s a worrying rise, but the housing minister, Grant Shapps, sought to put it in perspective by saying homelessness is still at a “historic” low level.

Should the alarm bells be ringing yet?

The analysis

When ministers talk about people who are homeless they rarely mean people sleeping in cardboard boxes. In fact, most people included in Thursday’s homelessness statistics have a roof of sorts over their heads, usually courtesy of their local authority.

The new figures from the Department of Communities and Local Government cover people who councils judged to be unintentionally homeless and in urgent need of accommodation.

Local authorities only have a legal duty to house people who fall into certain groups defined by the 1996 Housing Act, such as families with children, pregnant women and teenagers.

A total of 11,820 applicants were included in that category in the second quarter of 2011. That’s an increase of 1,720 people or 17 per cent on the figure for the equivalent period last year.

And that’s no blip. This kind of “homelessness” rose year-on-year in the first quarter of this year (by 18 per cent) and in the third and fourth quarters of last year too (by 15 and 14 per cent).

If we look at annual figures over the last 15 years, we see a steep rise throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s culminating in a peak in 2003, with councils listing 135,000 people as “in priority need” that year.

The numbers fall in subsequent years, reaching a low of 41,000 in 2009, then start to climb again.

Last year the numbers were up and this year they’re following suit, but just focussing on the so-called “statutory homeless” doesn’t reveal the full extent of the problem.

Someone who is homeless through no fault of their own but deemed “not in priority need” – a single man in good health, for example – isn’t included in those council figures.

Numbers are on the up for this group too: an 11 per cent year-on-year rise for the latest quarter, and a 29 per cent increase for the previous one.

More importantly, the government’s narrow definition of homelessness doesn’t cover people actually sleeping rough on the streets, a notoriously difficult demographic to count.

While he was in opposition, Mr Shapps pointed out that government estimates of rough sleepers were flawed, and he made good on a promise to update the methodology.

That may mean that his department’s latest figure of 1,247 people out on the streets across the country is more robust, but the change in the way the count is made makes it impossible to compare this with previous years.

The government figures are based on snapshots of how many rough sleepers are counted on a given night.

Charities who work with the homeless regularly come up with much larger estimates, and have also been reporting rises over the last two years.

In London, the charity Broadway produces a database called CHAIN, which recorded encounters with 5,343 different individuals living on the streets of the capital in the 2010/11, a nine per cent increase on last year.

The group has produced evidence of a steady rise in the numbers of rough sleepers in London since 2008.

A third group not included in the figures that have been making headlines this week are the so-called “hidden homeless”.

This group, as identified by charities like Shelter and Crisis, includes people who would like a place of their own but are forced to share accommodation for economic reasons.

It’s a broad category that might cover everyone from a couple who live with their parents but want to move out and a family forced to live in one room in an overcrowded house shared with strangers.

Estimates of the UK’s “hidden homeless” have been put as high as 400,000, although it’s highly debatable whether everyone included in that definition is suffering genuine hardship.

Nevertheless, there is evidence of a general trend of more people squeezed into dwellings for economic reasons.

Overcrowding, defined by the numbers of bedrooms a family has between them, has been rising fast, from 2.4 per cent of all households in 2003 to 2.9 per cent in the latest analysis.

The verdict

Mr Shapps is right to say that homelessness figures are still low compared to the high they reached in 2003, according to one narrow statistical indicator, but they’re already climbing sharply from the real historic low they reached two years ago.

DCLG are urging some perspective, pointing out that “statutory homeless” numbers are still only a third of what they were in 2003.

But every set of figures we have shows that the numbers of people without a bed to call their own have been rising sharply in the wake of the economic downturn.

The estimates we have for rough sleepers and the so-called “hidden homeless” are far from perfect, but the evidence we do have points to homelessness becoming a fast-growing problem, however you define it.

By Patrick Worrall