Nuancing homelessness figures in Britain

Last week, homelessness hit the headlines again as the charity Shelter report over 300,000 people in Britain are homeless or living in inadequate accommodation. The authors recognise that this figure includes rough sleepers and those living in temporary accommodation, but does not include the “hidden homeless”; the so-called “sofa surfers” who have no secure accommodation but are inherently difficult to measure so not officially recorded as homeless. In Scotland, this was the subject of a recent STV documentary, which offered a glimpse into the lived experiences of a number of hidden homeless people and families with young children.

The Shelter report is a timely piece of work and draws attention to the pressing need for action to tackle the problems of homelessness and rough sleeping in Britain. It highlights a number of issues that we know are at the core of the housing crisis in the UK, including affordability and insecurity, particularly insecurity in the private rented sector.

In parallel, a recent paper by Bramley & Fitzpatrick (the latter is the CaCHE Theme Lead on Homelessness) shows a clear relationship between younger age groups and the likelihood of having recently experienced homelessness; and that lone parent (mainly female-headed) households like those featured in the documentary, are especially vulnerable to homelessness. Those who’ve experienced child poverty and teenagers with health and support needs and behavioural issues were also shown to be most at risk of homelessness in young adulthood. The key point is that poverty (rather than say risks associated with precarious security through marginal affordability) is the overriding driver of homelessness: lone parents and young people are more likely to be homeless mainly because they are more likely to be poor. The authors conclude that addressing child poverty and adverse teenage experiences should be a policy priority and could be highly-cost effective in the long run.

The Shelter report also includes a detailed breakdown of homelessness in England (comprising temporary accommodation and rough sleeping figures), which enables regional ranking and appears to be consistent with other evidence showing that the problem is greatest for London and the South East. Because the new report by Shelter does not have the same detail on Scotland and Wales, it would therefore be useful to look at the Shelter report alongside other recent work on homelessness in Enlgand, Scotland and Wales (and indeed Northern Ireland).

First, let’s look at the most recent data from the Homelessness Monitor (HM) – a longitudinal study, led by Fitzpatrick and Heriot-Watt, commissioned by Crisis and funded by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It shows that rough sleeping in Scotland appears to have decreased by almost 50% compared to an increase of 132% in England, between 2010 and 2015. Statutory homelessness levels also appear to have been on a downward trend in Scotland since 2010, whereas HM data show levels have risen by 44% in England. In Northern Ireland the proportion of applicants deemed to be statutorily homeless has increased year-on-year since 2012. In Wales, statutory homelessness applications increased by 23% between 2010 and 2014, and fell again the following year. There are also a number of methods for measuring hidden homelessness, including the number of concealed households and sharing. The HM data show that the number of concealed households has risen by a third in England since 2008, has remained relatively stable in Wales, and has fallen slightly in Northern Ireland.

Second, in his recent work for Crisis, Glen Bramley examines the current and projected levels of different categories of homelessness, defined as ‘core’ and ‘wider’ homelessness. In this report, he sets out the current levels of ‘core’ homelessness across England, Scotland and Wales. Bramley estimates the ‘core’ homelessness population is 236,000. Importantly, this figure includes the so-called “sofa surfers”, who number 68,300 – an increase of 52.9% between 2011 and 2016. The report includes projected levels of core homelessness up to 2041 and reveals a remarkable degree of difference between England, Scotland and Wales: England shows an initial pause followed by an accelerating increase; Wales shows a sharper initial increase, with a pause after 2021, then a further medium rate of increase; and Scotland, by contrast, shows an initial downward trajectory until 2016, then a gradual increase.

This reportEradicating ‘Core Homlessness’ in Scotland’s Fourt Largest Cities’, a report to Social Bite by Littlewood et al. – finds that homelessness remains a significant problem in Scotland’s main cities, despite safety nets and widespread support for ‘Housing Options’. Indeed, the abovementioned fall in statutory homelessness cases in Scotland is the result of the ‘Housing Options’ approach and, when that’s taken into account, homelessness levels have remained relatively stable in Scotland, at least according to the HM data. Among a number of recommendations for Scotland, the authors support the ‘Housing First’ model, which offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness; and could help 470 people a year, with accommodation and support services, to avoid returning to homelessness. The Local Government and Communities Committee of the Scottish Parlaiment, currently conducting an inquiry into homelessness, is sympathetic to this approach.

There are a number of points of agreement between these different reports. Bramley and Fitzpatrick convincingly demonstrate that poverty, in all its forms, is the main driver of homelessness, but there are other significant drivers that should not be overlooked including availability and affordability of accommodations, as well as insecurity. Taken together, and including the new Shelter report, these studies provide a detailed and nuanced picture of complex homelessness in Britain and its constituent parts. The story differs between and within regions. Nuance is therefore important; but whatever the exact figures, there’s simply no disputing the fact that the problem is #FarFromFixed.

What is the Scottish Government, in particular, doing to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping? I recently attended a Holyrood Policy event at which Marion Gibbs, the Scottish Government’s Homelessness Team Leader, outlined the Government’s strategy for tackling homelessness and rough sleeping in Scotland. This includes, among other things:

In addition to this, I recently attended a Shelter Scotland Conference, where discussion focused on reforms to private rented sector tenancies. Shelter cite the ending of a private tenancy as among the main causes of homelessness. This was an excellent event at which a number of prominent speakers, including Professors Christine Whitehead and Douglas Robertson, dealt with a range of issues from Scottish rent reforms in an international context to how letting agents can help tenants sustain tenancies. Tom Moore, CaCHE co-investigator form the University of Sheffield, also spoke on the lessons from Ireland. The new legislation takes effect in Scotland from the beginning of December and includes a shift to open-ended tenancies, with fewer grounds to terminate a tenancy including an end to “no fault” evictions, and the small matter of local second generation rent controls. In addition to our work on homelessness, which cuts across all of our broad themes, we also plan to follow and monitor the implementation of the new legislation – so stay tuned!

Dr Gareth James is Knowledge Exchange Associate for the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. 

Author: Dr Gareth James
Published: 13/11/17


Date: November 13, 2017 11:43 am


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