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

Knowing the scale of the issue is vital to understanding how to solve it

The scale of homelessness is a notoriously difficult thing to quantify. There are many different types of homelessness, for starters. It’s not just rough sleeping — there are people trapped in temporary accommodation or hostels and shelters. And it is not always a visible problem. Hidden homelessness, also known as sofa surfing, is virtually impossible to count as people staying at friends or relatives homes are out of sight and often don’t consider themselves to be homeless.

It is vital that we have an accurate idea of how many people are homeless in the UK – if you don’t know how many people need help, how can you help them?

What are the current statistics for homelessness in the UK?

Overall, Shelter estimated that 280,000 people were homeless in England as of December 2019 with no equivalent figures for Scotland and Wales. But there are various measures to take into consideration.

The statutory homelessness figures tell us how many households have contacted councils for help with homelessness. In England, 288,470 households were owed assistance from councils to prevent or relieve homelessness in 2019-20 compared to 9,993 households in Wales. As for Scotland, the latest homelessness statistics released by the country’s Chief Statistician show 18,465 applications to councils asking for assistance between April and September 2019 – a decrease of two per cent compared to the same six-month period in 2018. 

As for the number of people rough sleeping, a total of 4,266 people were estimated to be living on the streets in England following the last official count. However this is often thought to be a considerable underestimate as it relies on single night counts and estimates by local authorities.

The Combined Homelessness and Information Network is thought to be a more accurate method. This tracks the flow of rough sleeping over a longer period with multiple agencies reporting contact with people on the streets. However it only currently operates in London. Nevertheless, their annual figures show a much higher number of people sleeping rough – 10,726 people were seen on the streets by outreach workers in 2019/20. 

In Wales, 405 people slept rough across the country between October 14 and 27 2019 in their last annual rough sleeping count.

And while Scotland doesn’t use the same method as England and Wales, the Scottish Household Survey data suggests 5,300 adults sleep rough at least once per year in Scotland, estimating just over 700 people bedding down on the streets in a single night.

Scottish councils also measure how many people apply to them for help with rough sleeping. In 2019/2020, 2,884 reported that they had slept rough within the three months before they were quizzed.

People who might be described as “hidden homeless” are often slipping through the cracks. Crisis has estimated that as many as 62 per cent of single homeless people do not show up on official figures.

And, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the face of homelessness across the UK with councils taking in England 29,000 people across the UK to protect them from the virus. The number of ex-rough sleepers now in emergency accommodation has soared as a result while long-term homes are sourced. That process is ongoing.

What percentage of the UK is homeless?

The percentage of people who are homeless is very small compared to the wider population. 

At last official count, 66.7 million people lived in the UK and when we talk about homelessness, at least pre-Covid-19, we are talking about a few hundred thousand people. For example, Shelter’s estimate that 280,000 people are homeless in England means that one in every 200 people find themselves without a home.

However, with the UK the fifth biggest economy in the world, it is an issue that can be tackled when there is political will to do so, as the response to homelessness during the Covid-19 pandemic has proven.

As well as the humanitarian and moral reasons to ensure that everyone is housed, ending homelessness also makes financial sense. Dealing with poverty and homelessness and the associated issues around them 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, the average private school place in Britain costs £11,565 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.

Which country has no homeless?

Homelessness is an issue that affects every country and there are different approaches to tackling the issue too.

Finland has perhaps come closest to solving the problem of street homelessness. Their adoption of the Housing First model over the last 30 years has seen rough sleepers given a home alongside intensive wraparound support to help them adapt to their new surroundings and to deal with issues like addiction or mental health problems.

There are virtually no rough sleepers in the country now, while 4,600 single people and 264 families were found to be homeless – but not on the streets – at last count in 2019.

The Housing First model has become a big part of the UK’s response to homelessness and has proven particularly successful in Scotland with England and Wales developing programmes.

But the Finnish success story is the result of a 30-year commitment by successive governments and it remains to be seen whether the Housing First model can play such a significant role in ending homelessness in the UK.

What can you do about it?

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.

And, of course, for 29 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.

You can help people help themselves out of homelessness by supporting your local vendor and signing up for a subscription to The Big Issue, where every purchase goes towards supporting The Big Issue’s mission to help the most vulnerable people in the UK to improve their lives.