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What are homeless hostels?

Homeless hostels are an important short-term housing solution for many people who are experiencing homelessness. Here’s everything you need to know.

homeless hostels

Homeless hostels can provide a short-term housing solution if you're experiencing homelessness. Image: Fernando Santander / Unsplash

If you are homeless and have nowhere to go, there’s a chance that you could end up staying in homeless hostels.

Hostels are still a key part of the response to street homelessness in parts of the UK and, with the housing crisis still in full swing, they can offer a place to stay for several months while someone waits for more permanent accommodation.

Here’s everything you need to know about homeless hostels.

Is living in a hostel considered homeless?

Yes. You don’t need to be sleeping on the streets to be homeless. There are many forms of homelessness, whether it be rough sleeping, staying with friends and family or in temporary accommodation. What unites them all is a lack of a permanent home.

Hostels are no different. They provide a short-term housing solution. While they offer some shelter from the elements, a person living in a hostel is still considered homeless.

Are hostels free for homeless people?

Homeless hostels are not free. Night shelters, which offer a place to stay at night, and other shelters that are made available during extreme weather events are often free.

Shelters don’t offer much more than a roof overhead with lots of people often sharing the same living space – something that was a particular problem during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hostels work differently with a person usually paying to stay in a furnished room that is often shared. Often hostels require a person to be referred either by a charity, local authority or frontline outreach team and there may also be a waiting list. Some hostels allow people to turn up as a self-referral.  

How much does a night in a hostel cost?

Hostels can be expensive. Residents must pay rent during the stay and often will be required to pay a service charge to cover the cost of meals and laundry as well as utility costs in the hostel.

For most residents, housing benefit will be needed to cover the majority of the rent and hostels often require proof of benefits and identification for someone to stay at the premises. The housing benefit may or may not cover the full cost of the rent depending on the residents’ circumstances, for example, if they are working or not.

While housing benefit may cover the rent, it does not cover the service charge and that must be paid through other means. Finding up to £35 a week for a service charge can be a tricky proposition for someone experiencing homelessness and residents can be evicted if they don’t keep up with payments.

Some hostels that house marginalised people like prison leavers, care leavers and people experiencing homelessness can be considered exempt accommodation, meaning they are exempt from housing benefit rules that cap rents to keep them affordable.

This issue has recently been the subject of a Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee inquiry citing fears that the sector is largely unregulated. Committee chair Clive Betts said: “There are worrying claims that neglectful landlords are exploiting the system and pocketing taxpayer money while providing housing and support which is woefully short of what is needed.”

How long can you stay at a hostel?

It depends on the hostel and also how long the resident is waiting to get permanent accommodation. Some hostels are meant for short stays and could see a resident stay for a month while others cater for longer stays, sometimes up to six months.

What happens in a homeless hostel?

There is no clear definition of what constitutes a hostel so how they work and what services and provision are available can change drastically from place to place and area to area.  

Hostels can also provide an opportunity to connect with support services that can give residents the chance to access education or employment, move closer to more stable accommodation or receive medical treatment. Residents may get at least one meal a day at a hostel.

In the past, staying at a homeless hostel could be an unappealing choice if you were homeless and owned a pet. Often you would face the heart-breaking choice of whether to accept accommodation and part ways with your pet or stay together on the street. There have been significant efforts to fix this in recent years with organisations like Dogs Trust and StreetVet working to train hostel staff and improve facilities to allow more people to move into hostels with their pets. 

There are other reasons why people who are homeless may prefer to stay on the streets or sofa surf with friends rather than using a hostel. Hostels can also be difficult spaces to navigate for people who are battling addiction or other personal demons and could find the experience of staying in a hostel to be a triggering one.

Homeless hostels are also not always suitable for everyone who might be experiencing homelessness. As staying in a hostel is linked to the benefit system, people who cannot access state support due to their immigration status are often left locked out. Most hostels cater to single adult men experiencing homelessness but others may be specifically for young people or women who have experienced domestic abuse or for people dealing with specific issues, such as substance misuse.

Many of the 1,286 people who died while experiencing homelessness in 2021 were staying in hostels, according to the Museum of Homelessness’s annual Dying Homeless project.

The grassroots group found more than 90 per cent of deaths took place in insecure accommodation.

Museum of Homelessness co-founder Matt Turtle said: “These often occur in taxpayer funded hostels which are exempt from the price cap local authorities apply to shared accommodation as they are meant to provide people experiencing homelessness with care as well as a safe place to live temporarily. But many fail to meet their most basic obligations.”

The Centre for Homelessness Impact (CfHI) is currently running a research project evaluating what makes a hostel effective.

The project is aiming to create a more specific definition of exactly what a hostel is as well as finding out what makes them effective in helping their residents move out of homelessness.

Jeremy Swain, a homelessness advisor working with CfHI, said: “Central to everything is the need for services provided to people who have experienced homelessness to be measured against the strongest possible evidence of what works. Without this discipline, we cannot identify where resources should be focused, what we must do more of and what we should stop doing where there is little or no evidence that it is helping people escape homelessness for good.”

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How can you find a homeless hostel?

If you’re in England you can find a homeless hostel using Homeless Link’s website. The membership organisation for frontline homelessness services hosts a database of homelessness services from across the country, including where to find your nearest hostel.

If you have a pet and want to find a hostel that will let you and your animal companion move indoors, Dogs Trust has a directory of pet-friendly accommodation providers on its website.

If you are facing homelessness you can also contact your local authority. Councils have a duty to help you find a place to stay in an emergency and may refer you to a hostel.

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