23 Dec 2014

How big a homelessness problem does Britain have?

The charity Crisis opens its doors to an expected 4,000 Christmas guests amid claims that benefit cuts are driving up homelessness.

According to official statistics, 111,960 people approached their council as homeless in 2013 – a 26 per cent rise over four years. That is not counting the estimated 380,000 “hidden homeless” – people in hostels, squats and bed and breakfast accommodation or staying with friends or family. Many are trapped in this situation for years.

Size of a city

That is nearly 500,000 people homeless – about the population of Bristol. Crisis has carried out research with Cardiff University on a sample of 480 homeless single people across 16 local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland that shows half of all homeless people first become homeless aged under 21, with the majority going through the experience again and again because they do not get the help they need.

It is difficult to go beyond estimates to get a realistic figure of the numbers of homeless people in the UK – local authorities are only responsible for keeping a register of the numbers of people who approach them as homeless. But even according to these figures, homelessness is at its highest level since 1997.

The sad reality is that homeless people who ask their councils for help are being turned away to sleep on the streets. – Jon Sparkes, Crisis chief executive

New data from the Chain network of London’s outreach teams shows that 762 under-26s were seen sleeping rough from 2013-2014, a rise of 141 per cent. Government street counts – considered unreliable by homelessness charities – estimate that during 2013, 2,414 people slept rough on any one night across England, a rise of 37 per cent on 2010. But the actual figures are likely to be much higher.

How do people become homeless?

There are many factors that can lead to someone becoming homeless, including relationship breakdown, leaving an institution such as care, and physical and
mental health problems. Nearly half of all homeless people have had problems with mental health, according to Crisis.

One of the main problems is a lack of housing supply. The number of new houses being built is not keeping up with demand, and the right to buy scheme, first introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980s, which allows tenants to buy their rented social housing, has affected the amount of social housing stock available.

Benefit cuts

Another reason is cuts to benefits. Housing benefit has been cut by about £7bn by the current government. Crisis says housing benefit for young people is now so low that it will not even cover the cost of a room in a shared house, leaving people either to sleep on a friend’s floor or even on the streets.

This is coupled with a big increase in benefits sanctions – financial penalties imposed on people who are deemed to have not met the conditions for claiming benefits.

The number of sanctions imposed on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) claimants rose to 227,629 in the last three months of 2013, an increase of 69,600 on the equivalent quarter in 2012. In total, 870,793 claimants lost their benefit at some point during 2013.

The charity says it found that when people had recently gone to their council for help, nearly two thirds received either no advice, only general advice or were referred elsewhere.

Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of Crisis, said: “The sad reality is that homeless people who ask their councils for help are being turned away to sleep on the streets. That’s why Crisis is calling on party leaders to review the support given to single homeless people under the law. In this day and age, no one should face the horrors of the streets.”

The government says it has introduced the Fair Chance Fund, a £15m payment by results programme to target young, homeless people. It also has the £20m Homelessness Transition Fund, a grants programme set up as part of its strategy to tackle rough sleeping.

Homelessness Minister Kris Hopkins said: “We recently announced funding of £23m to help the most vulnerable homeless young people in the country and the single homeless get their lives back on track. This money will pay for sustained housing, employment and educational support for those with the greatest needs, helping them find accommodation, gain qualifications and move into work.”