How many people are homeless in the UK? And what can you do about it?

Christmas sees homelessness get increased airtime, but for rough sleepers, the struggle is all year round. Here's what you should do if you see someone sleeping rough

An estimated 320,000 people are homeless in the UK, according to the latest research by Shelter. This equates to one in every 201 Brits and was an increase of four per cent on the previous year’s number.

Rough sleepers are just the visible tip of the iceberg when it comes to registering and understanding the homelessness crisis. The widening net of poverty and the breakdown of mental health provision means numbers are growing. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people bed down on the streets on any given night, a figure that has almost doubled since 2010.

As of March 2019, 84,740 households are stuck in temporary accommodation, up more than 75 per cent since December 2010, where the use of B&Bs and hotels to put up hard up families hit its lowest point since 2004. Shockingly, Shelter estimate there will be 135,000 children living in temporary accommodation by Christmas 2019.

In addition, there are an uncertain number of ‘hidden homeless’ who are unknown to authorities, staying with relatives or friends, sofa surfing or sleeping in cars or the countryside – places official counts don’t cover.

It’s a national disgrace and the chorus of voices calling for real action on every level is growing louder every day.

There has been a renewed focus on homelessness this year. People are talking about it, taking part in charity fundraisers and moving it up the political agenda – and it is no surprise. As common a sight as Christmas shoppers on our high streets are rough sleepers huddled in doorways across the country.

However, this is NOT just a Christmas issue. 

An estimated 726 people died while homeless in England and Wales in 2018. This was up 22% on the previous year – the highest year-to-year rise since this data began being collected. The average age was 45 years old for men and 43 years old for homeless women – compared to 76 years old and 81 years old for the wider population.

For 28 years The Big Issue has been on the frontline offering a way out, and one of the best things you can do is to buy this magazine every week, take your copy and support your vendor as they work hard to earn their way out of the poverty trap.

What to do

If you see a rough sleeper send details of where and when you see them, as well as a brief description of the person, to StreetLink using their website, app or phoneline. StreetLink is operated in partnership by Homeless Link and St Mungo’s. Scotland has no centralised service so you should check for contact details of your local council.

Alerts are monitored by volunteers at St Mungo’s who check information and forward them on to outreach teams. Every day hundreds of alerts are received by StreetLink, which has seen a an increase in referrals every year – with more than 3,600 messages in a 24-hour period when the ‘Beast from the East’ hit in February 2018.

Outreach teams go out to engage with rough sleepers, but it’s not as simple as helping them to local shelters because…

Turning referrals into positive outcomes is tricky. Rough sleepers are unable to be located in a third of referrals in England and over half of London cases (52 per cent). And when they can be found, each individual is dealing with a range of issues that led to them sleeping rough, exacerbated by living on the streets. In 18 per cent of cases, the person is already known by the outreach team and it becomes a case of checking in with them and building up a relationship.

But until local authorities and the government take serious steps to prevent people sleeping rough in the first place, telling StreetLink about rough sleepers in your area is a positive thing to do.

Tell StreetLink using its mobile app, calling 0300 500 0914 or visit: streetlink.org.uk. If someone is in urgent need of medical attention call 999

Extreme poverty is extremely expensive. It is far cheaper to prevent people becoming homeless – or get them securely accommodated as quickly as possible. Research for Crisis in 2015 puts the cost of a single person sleeping rough in the UK for 12 months at £20,128 while successful intervention costs £1,426. To put this in context, it was revealed earlier this year that the average private school place in Britain costs £17,000 per year.

Evidence shows that people who experience homelessness for three months or longer cost on average £4,298 per person to NHS services, £2,099 per person for mental health services and £11,991 per person in contact with the criminal justice system.