Rough sleeper in London, 2015

Homelessness in the United Kingdom is measured and responded to in differing ways in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but affects people living in every part of the UK's constituent countries. Most homeless people have at least a modicum of shelter but without any security of tenure. Unsheltered people, "rough sleepers", are a small minority of homeless people.

Homeless population

The UK homeless charity Shelter estimated in 2019 that the number of people in England who were entirely homeless or in temporary accommodation was 280,000.[1][2] Rough sleepers are only a small proportion of the homeless.[3] Crisis estimates there are roughly 12,300 rough sleepers in the UK and also 12,000 people sleeping in sheds, bins, cars, tents and night busses. The figure is derived from research by Heriot-Watt University. People experiencing homelessness sleeping in bins are sometimes crushed to death by compacting machinery or otherwise killed when bins are collected and dealt with by waste disposal companies.[4]

According to figures from the Department of Communities and Local Government, the number of people registered as homeless with local councils was just over 100,000 in 1998, rose to 135,000 in 2003 before declining in the years up to and during the Great Recession. After a low of 40,000 in 2009 and 2010, the figure rose to just under 60,000 in 2017.[3] The number living in temporary accommodation rose from 50,000 in 1998 to 100,000 in 2005, declining back to 50,000 in 2011, then rising to 80,000 in 2017.[3]

The number of rough sleepers was 4,800 in 2017 compared to 1,800 in 2010, when comparable records begin. Crisis attributes rising homelessness to a shortage of social housing, housing benefits not covering private rents and a shortage of homeless prevention schemes for people leaving care.[5]

Of the people experiencing homelessness who died in 2017, the average age was 44 for men and 42 for women. Suicide, substance and excessive alcohol use are the most common causes of death among people experiencing homelessness in the UK.[6]

In 2023, the number of homeless people in England hit record levels, with 104,510 people in England in temporary accommodation.[7] An estimated 3,898 people slept rough in England in 2023, over double the estimated figure from 2010.[8]


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Historically, support for people who became homeless was provided by monastic communities. After the Reformation, forms of support through early local government structures were provided by means of the poor law, which differed in England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

Eventually, a system of formally elected local authorities replaced the poor law unions. The current system of local authority housing and homelessness assistance in England, was introduced by the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 and is currently overseen through the Housing Act 1996.[9]


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To prevent homelessness the charity Crisis maintains the public sector should:[10]

Causes of homelessness

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A homeless man near Princes Street in Edinburgh

The longer term causes of homelessness have been examined by a number of research studies. A number of different pathways into homelessness have been identified;[12] research suggests that both personal factors (e.g. addictions) and structural factors (e.g. poverty) are ultimately responsible for the sequence of events that results in homelessness. For young people, there are additional factors that appear to be involved, most notably needing to face the responsibilities of independent living before they are ready for them.[13] Rising costs of housing and increases in job insecurity have also been identified as contributing factors.[14]

Government assistance

Main articles: Homelessness in England and Homelessness in Scotland

Homeless shelter in London, 1866

Policy on homelessness is overseen by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and Homes and Communities Agency in England,[15] the Scottish Government Housing and Social Justice Directorate,[16] the Welsh Government,[17] and the Department for Communities and Northern Ireland Housing Executive[18][19] in Northern Ireland. It has been a devolved policy area outside England since the introduction of devolution in the 1990s. The Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 focused national attention on homelessness and housing quality, and resulted in around 255 people becoming homeless overnight.[20] It was reported in The Guardian in 2018 that half of young people at risk of homelessness in the UK who approached their local authority, received no significant help.[21]

All Local Housing Authorities (LHAs) in the United Kingdom have a legal statutory duty to provide 24-hour advice to homeless people, or those who are at risk of becoming homeless within 28 days. Once an individual applies to the appropriate City Council, Borough Council, District Council or Unitary Authority for assistance, from a person claiming to be homeless (or threatened with homelessness), the Local Housing Authority is also legally duty bound to make detailed inquiries into that person's circumstances, in order to decide whether they meet the criteria, which are defined as statutory homelessness. For people meeting such criteria, the Local Housing Authority therefore has a legal statutory duty to find Temporary Accommodation for the person, and then provide them with assistance to find a permanent, long term adequate dwelling, that will usually be within the Private Rented Sector (PRS), but sometimes will be a property with a Housing Association, a council house, or a council flat.

Statutory homelessness


A person suffers statutory homelessness if governmental regulations oblige the council to provide housing-related support to the person. At present this criterion is met if (and only if) all of the following conditions are true:

The definition of priority need varies between England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but generally includes any of following conditions being met:

A person does not have to be roofless to legally qualify as lacking a permanent home. They may be in possession of accommodation which it is not reasonably feasible to continue to use by virtue of its affordability, condition, or location. The requirement to have a local connection does not apply if it would lead to the applicant becoming a victim of violence, or at risk of violence.

In Wales, priority need was similarly extended to include individuals who are aged 18 to 20 and at risk of financial or sexual exploitation, but provided they are leaving care.


Temporary accommodation must be provided to those that might be suffering statutory homelessness, pending a final decision. Often bed and breakfast hotels are used for temporary accommodation, unless a suitable hostel or refuge is available. The suitability of temporary accommodation is often a topic of concern for local media, and pressure groups.

If the council concludes that the applicant suffers statutory homelessness then the local authority has a legal duty to find long-term accommodation for the applicant and their household (those dependants who would ordinarily be living with them), and any other person whom it is reasonable to expect to reside with them. The council must offer/continue to provide temporary accommodation to such an applicant, on an immediate basis, until long-term accommodation is found for them.

Long-term accommodation may not necessarily be a socially rented home (one provided by the council, or by a Housing Association); the council can discharge its duty by finding an appropriate private sector tenancy for the applicant.

Non-statutory homelessness

If the authority decides that a person does lack a home, but does not qualify as suffering statutory homelessness, then a lesser obligation applies.

Where the applicant merely lacks a local connection to the council, the council will usually refer the applicant's case to a local authority with which they do have a local connection. If the applicant is in priority need, but is considered to have become homeless intentionally, the local authority is obliged to provide temporary accommodation for as long as is reasonably necessary for the applicant to find long-term accommodation; this is usually a fortnight, but additional periods of similar length can sometimes be provided at the council's discretion (typically granted in cases of extenuating circumstances).

Rough sleeping

A national service, called Streetlink, was established in 2012 to help members of the public obtain near-immediate assistance for specific rough sleepers, with the support of the Government (as housing is a devolved matter, the service currently only extends to England). Currently, the service doesn't operate on a statutory basis, and the involvement of local authorities is merely due to political pressure from the government and charities, with funding being provided by the government (and others) on an ad-hoc basis. The UK government has cut funding to local authorities and local authorities feel forced to reduce services for people experiencing homelessness. It is feared this will increase the numbers of rough sleepers and increase the numbers dying while sleeping rough.[23]

A member of the public who is concerned that someone is sleeping on the streets can report the individual's details via the Street Link website or by calling its hotline. Someone who finds themselves sleeping on the streets can also report their situation using the same methods.

The service aims to respond within 24 hours, including an assessment of the individual circumstances and an offer of temporary accommodation for the following nights. The response typically includes a visit to the rough sleeper early in the morning that follows the day or night on which the report has been made. The service operates via a number of charities and with the assistance of local councils.

Soup Run provided by a charity

Where appropriate, rough sleepers will also be offered specialist support:

Other organisations, like The Connection at St. Martin's, address a range of complex needs. This is because many people sleeping rough struggle with multiple complex needs like addiction, poor mental health or unclear immigration status.

It was reported in 2018 that at least 50 local authorities had enacted Public Space Protection Orders to deter begging in town centres.[24] Liberty has argued that these ordinances are illegal and that people experiencing homelessness often lack the access to the legal aid support needed to challenge them.[25]

Non-government assistance

Practical advice regarding homelessness can be obtained through a number of major non-governmental organisations including,

See also

Further reading


  1. ^ "280,000 people in England are homeless, with thousands more at risk". Shelter England. Archived from the original on 2021-05-16. Retrieved 2021-05-16.
  2. ^ Webb, Kate (November 2017). Report: Far From Alone. Shelter. Archived from the original on 2018-02-15. Retrieved 2018-02-14.
  3. ^ a b c "Homelessness in England". Full Fact. October–December 2017. Archived from the original on 1 October 2019. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  4. ^ Deaths of homeless people sleeping in bins prompt calls for action Archived 2020-02-24 at the Wayback Machine The Guardian
  5. ^ Homelessness: Thousands sleeping rough in cars, Crisis says Archived 2018-12-23 at the Wayback Machine BBC News. 23 December 2018
  6. ^ "Nearly 600 homeless people died last year, figures show". The Independent. 20 December 2018. Archived from the original on 1 October 2019. Retrieved 23 January 2020.
  7. ^ Richardson, Jo (1 August 2023). "Homelessness in England has reached record levels – here's why, and how to fix it". The Conversation. Retrieved 3 March 2024.
  8. ^ Butler, Patrick (29 February 2024). "Rise in rough sleeping in England 'source of national shame', charity says". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 March 2024.
  9. ^ "Homelessness data: Notes and definitions". 31 January 2023. Archived from the original on 11 March 2023. Retrieved 11 March 2023.
  10. ^ Homelessness could be ended ‘within a decade’ with £10bn of government investment, charity claims Archived 2018-06-12 at the Wayback Machine The Independent
  11. ^ Homelessness could end in a decade, says charity Crisis Archived 2018-06-11 at the Wayback Machine BBC News. 11 June 2018
  12. ^ Harding, Jamie; Irving, Adele; Whowell, Mary (2011). Homelessness, pathways to exclusion and opportunities for intervention (PDF). Newcastle upon Tyne: Northumbria Graphics, Arts and Social Sciences Academic Press. ISBN 9780956543318. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 June 2015.
  13. ^ Harding, Jamie (2004). Making it work the keys to success for young people living independently. Bristol: Policy Press. ISBN 9781847425942.
  14. ^ "More than 100,000 homeless households set to be trapped in temporary accommodation by 2020". The Independent. 11 April 2018. Archived from the original on 13 April 2018. Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  15. ^ "Housing for older and vulnerable people". Department for Communities and Local Government & Homes and Communities Agency. Archived from the original on 27 August 2017. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  16. ^ "Homelessness". Scottish Government. Archived from the original on 27 August 2017. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  17. ^ "Homelessness". Welsh Government. Archived from the original on 27 August 2017. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  18. ^ "Housing". Department for Communities. Archived from the original on 27 August 2017. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  19. ^ "Homelessness". Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Archived from the original on 27 August 2017. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  20. ^ "Grenfell fire: Police say 255 people survived the blaze". BBC News. 10 July 2017. Archived from the original on 3 September 2017. Retrieved 26 August 2017.
  21. ^ Half of young people facing homelessness denied help – report Archived 2018-11-12 at the Wayback Machine The Guardian 11 November 2018
  22. ^ Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act 2003.
  23. ^ Butler, Patrick; Laville, Sandra (21 January 2017). "UK council cuts will lead to more people sleeping rough, charities warn". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 21 January 2017. Retrieved 21 January 2017.
  24. ^ Hundreds of homeless people fined and imprisoned in England and Wales Archived 2018-05-21 at the Wayback Machine The Guardian. 20 May 2018.
  25. ^ Legal Aid Agency taken to court for refusing to help rough sleepers Archived 2018-10-23 at the Wayback Machine The Guardian. 23 October 2018