When it comes to working out how many people are homeless in the UK, and where those groups are concentrated, the term ‘homelessness’ becomes elusive.
‘Measuring the incidence of homelessness is anything but straightforward,’ says Hal Pawson, a professor at the Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of New South Wales. ‘A large part of the problem is because of the imprecise nature of the term. For some people “homelessness” isn’t real unless it involves people literally sleeping on the streets.
‘More nuanced definitions recognise that there are various gradations of “quasi homelessness” beyond this – extending to the much, much larger group of “couch surfers”,’ he adds.
For the UK, legislation passed in 1977 created a legal definition of homelessness to allow local authorities to help certain groups to secure housing. This legal definition has been used to produce quarterly government statistics on homelessness. But 1977 was a long time ago, and the system is starting to show strain. Pawson says that most local authorities now manage their work with the homeless on an ‘informal basis’, which means going outside the 1977 frame of reference.
‘One result of the wide divergence in practice which has resulted is that these “administratively generated” statistics no longer have a lot of meaning in terms of providing a meaningful basis for comparing rates of homelessness between different places,’ he says.
A recent report from Heriot-Watt University attempts to solve this problem by using casework records from support services and data linkage to create national and local estimates for people with ‘Severe Multiple Deprivation’.
‘A person subject to SMD is a person who, in a given year, has had contact with support services in relation to homelessness, substance abuse and criminal justice,’ says Pawson.
The report identifies 58,000 people subject to SMD in the UK. Taking this definition, the highest SMD rates were found in Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Rochdale, Manchester, Hull, Bournemouth, Nottingham, Stoke and Newcastle.
London usually tops statistics in homelessness, but this measure shows that the problem is more concentrated in the de-industrialised northern cities.
The charity Crisis produces a homelessness monitor, which includes a wide definition to capture the numbers of homeless: People sleeping rough; single homeless people living in hostels, shelters and temporary supported accommodation; statutorily homeless households; and those aspects of ‘hidden homelessness’ amenable to statistical analysis using large-scale surveys, namely ‘concealed’, ‘sharing’ and ‘overcrowded households’.
On this basis, 52,000 people were subject to ‘homelessness acceptances’ under the 1977 statute for the period 2013–2014, which represents 12,000 more than in 2009–2010.
There was an 80 per cent increase in London.
If informal ‘homelessness prevention’ and ‘homelessness relief’ is included in the figures, then 2013–2014 was up nine per cent on the previous year to 280,000 people.
‘In terms of pressured housing markets, of course London and much of southern England are much more badly affected than the north,’ says Pawson. ‘It’s also certainly true that London is the region with by far the greatest incidence of homeless if measured in terms of the number of homeless households placed by local authorities in B&B hotels and other forms of temporary accommodation.’
‘Statutory homelessness is highest in high-cost housing market areas (London and the South), whereas those aspects of single homelessness associated with “complex needs” (substance misuse, mental ill health, offending behaviours) tend to be concentrated in the northern cities and some seaside towns, alongside certain central London boroughs,’ adds Suzanne Fitzpatrick, a professor at Heriot-Watt who also worked on the study.
Which infers that the solutions for homelessness have to be different across geographical areas.
‘In high housing/labour demand areas, families with children struggling to compete in tight housing markets predominate (they make up the majority of statutory homeless households in England). In low housing/labour demand areas, there are stronger concentrations of single homeless men with complex needs,’ says Fitzpatrick.