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

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. 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.

Rough sleepers are just the visible tip of the  iceberg when it comes to registering and understanding the homelessness crisis. At the end of December last year 78,930 households were in temporary accommodation, which basically means people or families are put into shelters, hostels, B&Bs, refuges or other social housing but do not have a secure, permanent home. This included 120,510 children. Shockingly, this figure has now risen to 130,000 children.

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.

An estimated 320,000 people are homeless in the UK, according to research by Shelter – that is one in every 201 Brits and an increase of four per cent on last year’s number.

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

For 27 years The Big Issue has been on the front line 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 record number of referrals this year – with over 3,600 messages in a 24-hour period when the ‘Beast from the East’ hit in March.

Outreach teams go out to engage with rough sleepers, but it’s not as simple as taxiing them to local shelters. A study by Crisis found that just five per cent of referrals since 2012 – a total of 4,367 – led to a person being housed, whether temporarily or permanently.

But the service engaged a rough sleeper with services in 5,768 cases across England – seven per cent of referrals and 20 per cent in Wales (219).

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 problems 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: 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 from
At What Cost 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.

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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