Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

The geography of homelessness

The geography of homelessness i4lcocl2
26 Jun
The real homelessness problem may be in the North and not London, but much depends on definitions

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’.

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 14.20.32Severe Multiple Deprivation concentrations (Image: Heriot-Watt)

‘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.

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 14.20.01

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.

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...
    Alien views
    The tabloids would have us believe that immigrants are taking our houses, our jobs, our school places and our hospital beds. But a close reading of th...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


Mapping the trade war between the US and China and…


Check out this superb selection of mapping books - ideal…


Glacial melt is increasing  land instability in mountainous regions, with huge tsunamis…


A large-scale terrain mapping project makes Antarctica the best-mapped continent…


New research reveals that microplastics can survive in mosquitos from…


New research measures the ability of major cities to re-use…


Biosphere 2 was one of the most ambitious experiments in…


High-quality, affordable drones can revolutionise the way that landscape and…


Benjamin Hennig charts the impact of volcanoes on nearby human…


A volunteer-led digital mapping project is at the heart of…


As the planet urbanises, attention is turning towards the most…


Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many…


A rising number of cruise ships and their ‘overlooked’ diesel…


Benjamin Hennig charts the growth and impact of the world’s…


Long-term studies reveal the Sahara desert has expanded substantially over…


South America’s wealthiest economy is at a crossroads between environmental…


The European Court of Justice finds the logging of a…


In this extract from his new book, Tides, mountain climber…


New data from the World Health Organization reveals that nine…