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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » What is Homelessness?

What is Homelessness?

Last updated on 3rd May 2023

There are reportedly more than 270,000 homeless people in the UK, including thousands of children. However, these figures could be grossly underestimating the true prevalence of homelessness in the UK, as many homeless people go unreported and unaccounted for.

With a rising cost of living, a struggling economy and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic still being felt across the UK, homelessness may be on the rise. In fact, the number of homeless people sleeping rough on the streets of the UK is 38% higher in 2022 compared to 2010.

What is homelessness?

Homelessness refers to an individual, or family, without permanent, appropriate or safe housing. While people often think that homelessness only refers to people who have no home and live on the streets, there are many ways to be classed as homeless, even if you technically have a roof over your head.

Some ways you can be classed as homeless are:

  • If you are staying with friends and family in a temporary situation.
  • If you are staying in a hotel, hostel, shelter, refuge or other temporary accommodation.
  • If you are squatting somewhere with no legal right to stay.
  • If you are experiencing domestic violence or are at risk of domestic violence.
  • If you are living in poor or unsafe conditions that are affecting your health or well-being.
  • If your family is living separately because they have no home to live in together.
  • If you will imminently lose your current housing with no subsequent housing currently organised.

Someone who is homeless will not have an immediate possibility of acquiring housing. Homelessness is a unique experience that affects different people in different ways. Although we often think of those who are homeless sleeping on the streets or in tents, many homeless people couch surf, sleep in their cars or live in temporary accommodation, such as in a shelter or refuge. Even if you have a roof over your head, you can still be experiencing homelessness.

Family without a home

What causes homelessness?

Homelessness is caused by a range of factors, and often there is not one single cause of an individual or family becoming homeless. Instead, homelessness has complex systemic, structural, individual and familial causes that can all contribute to the process of becoming homeless.

It is important to be aware that in the vast majority of situations, homelessness is not a choice. Some common misconceptions about homeless people are that they are lazy, don’t want to work and are addicted to drugs. In reality, homelessness is a complex issue that is unavoidable in the majority of situations.

Some of the main causes of homelessness are:

Social disadvantages

Homelessness is an extremely complex social issue that can have multiple social factors. Social disadvantages such as living in poverty or being born into poverty, a lack of education and experiencing racial, social and cultural discrimination or inequality can all result in homelessness.

For example, someone born into poverty is significantly less likely to obtain good GCSE results or attend further education, compared to someone born into a middle-class or upper-class family. This results in persistent economic inequality, a lack of employment opportunities and significant wage gaps, all of which can contribute to homelessness. Personal social factors, such as a family breakdown, can also increase the likelihood of someone becoming homeless.

Financial hardship

Non-payment of rent or missing several mortgage repayments are the most common reasons for eviction or the loss of someone’s home. With the rising cost of living, even those with steady incomes can find themselves missing payments and falling into debt. Financial difficulties can also occur as a result of poor financial literacy and poor life choices. This can cause financial stress and hardship that is extremely difficult to escape from.

If you begin to fall behind in your rent or mortgage payments and lose your housing, the housing crisis in the UK and the likelihood that you will now have a poor credit rating can make it more difficult for you to find alternative accommodation. Debt is extremely prevalent in the homeless community, which can make escaping from homelessness significantly more difficult. Living in poverty and being born into poverty are significant risk factors for homelessness.

Substance misuse

A person who misuses substances, including alcohol, prescription medications and illegal drugs, may be significantly more likely to experience homelessness for several reasons. Addiction can damage their relationships with family and friends, cause them to lose their employment and housing, and result in them spending their savings.

However, substance misuse can also occur as a result of homelessness, rather than being the cause of homelessness. People living in a desperate situation, who are frequently experiencing trauma, stress and a feeling of hopelessness, and are living outside in extreme weather conditions, may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping strategy or a way to escape reality. This can make substance misuse and homeless a vicious cycle. It is estimated that 60% of homeless people who sleep on the streets are currently experiencing a substance misuse problem.

Mental health difficulties

Studies have found that approximately 50% of all homeless people experience some type of mental health difficulty and 25% of homeless people are considered to have a severe mental health condition. A variety of mental health conditions can contribute to homelessness, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Unfortunately, the relationship between homelessness and mental health has been described as a cycle, with some people with mental health difficulties finding it difficult to maintain stable employment, relationships and housing. If a person with a mental health difficulty becomes homeless, this stressful or traumatic event can exacerbate their condition and worsen their symptoms, impairing their judgement, increasing risk-taking behaviours and increasing the likelihood that they will begin misusing substances. Homelessness can also affect your sleep and stress levels which can have a significant effect on mental health. This can make it more difficult for someone with a mental health difficulty to escape homelessness, particularly if they become distrustful of authority figures or unknown people, even those trying to help them.

Domestic violence or family violence

Violence within the home, including physical and sexual violence and physical, emotional, sexual or financial abuse, is a leading cause of homelessness. Many people flee violent or abusive homes, particularly if there is a threat to their safety or the safety of their families.

Fleeing domestic or family violence can result in homelessness for many victims because they are likely to have been forced to leave their homes, their departure is likely to have been quick and secretive (with no opportunity for financial preparation), and they may not have family or social support to rely on. A third of homeless women stated that domestic violence contributed to them being homeless. Many people who flee a violent home leave with their children, resulting in their children also becoming homeless.

Insufficient support for those leaving facilities and institutions

Insufficient support for people leaving facilities and institutions, such as prisons, mental health facilities, correctional facilities, rehabilitation facilities and hospitals, can result in homelessness for the person involved, particularly if they were in the facility or institution for a long period of time.

Someone leaving a facility may be unable to get adequate support to find accommodation and employment upon their release or may have been homeless before entering the facility, making it more difficult for them to find a way out of the situation. 15% of prisoners in the UK reported being homeless before they entered the prison and between 2020 and 2021, more than 50% of prison leavers were released without previously organised settled accommodation. Prisoners who are released as homeless are significantly less likely to secure employment and twice as likely to re-offend in the next 12 months.

Structural and economic factors

There are multiple economical and structural factors that can contribute to someone becoming homeless. This could include a lack of access to affordable housing, a reduction in income and disability support, and income suppression for those on a low income. These factors can make it much more difficult for those on a low income, those working part-time, those who are currently unemployed and those who are living in poverty to improve their finances or remain in a good financial position.

Unemployment is currently high in the UK and it is increasingly difficult to find employment that can support a household. Wages are also stagnating and are not rising in line with inflation and the cost of living. For example, the cost of petrol and energy bills has risen by between 80% and 100% in the last 2 years, but wages are falling at the fastest rate in more than two decades. This can make it extremely difficult for many people to support themselves and their families and can result in homelessness. Homelessness is significantly more likely for people experiencing one or more of these structural and economic factors.

A traumatic event

A traumatic event, such as a relationship breakdown, a bereavement or a fire or flood in your home, can all result in sudden and unexpected homelessness, particularly in people with no savings, a poor credit rating or a lack of social support.

A traumatic event can also impact your mental health and your ability to cope with stressful situations and, in some cases, can also result in a substance misuse disorder. This is a prime example of how multiple factors can contribute to someone becoming homeless.

Lack of support for immigrants and refugees

The current media and societal hostility towards immigrants have resulted in many immigrants and refugees experiencing suspicion, resentment and a constant threat of removal from the UK. They may also experience actual or perceived exclusion from support services, including social housing and financial support.

Many immigrants and refugees, particularly those who are undocumented, do not have the legal right to employment or the legal right to stay in the UK. The inability to earn a living and barriers which may prevent them from seeking support, such as language barriers and personal barriers, can result in them becoming homeless.

Woman who is homeless

Are poverty and homelessness the same thing?

Poverty and homeless are not the same thing. However, there is a strong link between the two, with poverty being one of the leading causes of homelessness around the world.

Poverty is defined as not having enough money to meet your basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter. In some cases, poverty can prevent someone from obtaining an education, a stable job, medical help and accessing leisure activities or social events.

Some people living in poverty are not homeless; however, they may be at risk of becoming homeless. Poverty can result in a person becoming excluded from society, which can also cause them to become excluded from the education system and the healthcare system.

Poverty can be difficult to escape from for a number of reasons, such as:

  • People in poverty often have poorer education, which can result in fewer employment opportunities.
  • A high cost of living can make poverty a vicious cycle.
  • Income inequality means that people in poverty have lower incomes and a lack of income growth.
  • A lack of credit history or bad credit history.
  • A lack of financial knowledge or poor financial literacy.
  • Systemic issues encourage the poverty cycle to continue as the system requires people to do low-paying, low-level jobs that people with higher education and higher income demands are unwilling to do.
  • A lack of belief in one’s self can make escaping poverty seem impossible.

People in poverty are often described as living on the brink. This means they are very close to falling into financial hardship, or they may already be falling into financial hardship. They may be fighting debt, with no way to escape. This is why the link between poverty and homelessness is so strong.

Poverty means that people often do not have the necessary resources to afford long-term, appropriate housing and often have to choose between shelter and food. Although poverty and homelessness are different, they are inextricably linked, with each causing the other and both being difficult to escape from.

Who is more at risk of becoming homeless?

There are many factors that can put you at risk of homelessness. An individual may be at risk of homelessness if they experience one or more of the below risk factors:

  • Experiencing financial stress or difficulties, including a low income (below 30% of the average family income for the area you live in), a loss of income, or sudden financial demands.
  • Having mental health difficulties, such as PTSD, schizophrenia or depression.
  • Misusing substances, such as drugs or alcohol, or having a substance misuse disorder.
  • Living in an area with a housing crisis.
  • Previously being in rental or mortgage arrears or previously being evicted.
  • Having a low credit score or no credit score.
  • Not having effective support networks, particularly from family and friends.
  • Currently living in accommodation that is unsafe, unsuitable or not permanent.
  • Experiencing domestic violence or abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional or financial violence or abuse.
  • Having a relationship or family breakdown.
  • Being unemployed or in a low-income job.
  • Being involved in gambling or other high-risk behaviours.
  • Being in care up until the age of 16 or 18 (25% of homeless people have been in care at some point).
  • Disengaging with school and other education or training.
  • Having a criminal conviction or spending time in prison.
  • Being an LGBTQIA+ youth.

Although there are many risk factors that can increase your likelihood of becoming homeless, homelessness can happen to anyone, regardless of your age, race, gender, sexual orientation, educational background and financial background.

What are the types of homelessness?

There are several different types of homelessness:

1. Transitional Homelessness
Transitional homelessness is the most common type of homelessness and usually occurs because of a major life change or a catastrophic event. For example, an individual may unexpectedly lose their job, experience a sudden end to a cohabiting relationship or go through a major life stressor, such as a bereavement. People who experience transitional homelessness are typically younger and may enter a shelter or temporary housing system, couch surf, sleep in their cars, or sleep on the streets. Transitional homelessness lasts for less than one year.

2. Episodic Homelessness
Episodic homelessness refers to an individual who has experienced three episodes of homelessness within one year. If the individual experiences a fourth episode of homelessness, this will then be classed as chronic homelessness. People who are episodically homeless are usually younger and often experience a medical condition, mental health difficulties or substance misuse. Someone who is episodically homeless may work a minimum wage job or a part-time or seasonal job that makes their income unpredictable or insufficient to support them.

3. Chronic Homelessness
Chronic homelessness refers to someone who has been homeless for more than one year or has experienced homelessness at least four times over the previous three years. Often, people who are chronically homeless are dealing with a condition or issue that can make it more difficult to escape homelessness, such as a mental health condition, a substance use disorder or a disability. Being homeless for an extended period of time can have a significant impact on someone’s mental, physical and emotional health. People who experience chronic homelessness have an average life expectancy that is 17 years shorter than those who never experience homelessness.

4. Hidden Homelessness
Hidden homelessness refers to someone whose homelessness goes largely unnoticed, unreported and undocumented. They may seek help from family or friends, couch surf, live in their car or sleep in another place which means they are never officially identified as being homeless. A person who is ‘hidden homeless’ never accesses housing support resources or government or charitable help and they don’t appear in national statistics on homelessness. A hidden homeless individual is usually younger and may have become homeless suddenly, as a result of a catastrophic life event, a trauma or a life change. Younger homeless people are less likely to access support than older homeless people, which is why they are often ‘hidden’.

Upset and stressed woman

Who can help if you are homeless?

There are several organisations and charities that can help if you are currently homeless, or you are about to become homeless.

If you are 16 or 17 years old and you have recently been living in care, you don’t have a family you can stay with, you have mental health difficulties, a medical condition or a disability, or you are responsible for a child, social services may be able to find you somewhere to live. You should contact your local social services department for help and advice.

However, if you are 18 years old or above, you will need to contact the housing department of your local council. If you are currently homeless, or you will become homeless in the next 8 weeks, you can apply for help from your local council. Keep in mind that you do not have to be living on the streets to be classified as homeless. For example, if you are temporarily staying with a friend or family member or your living conditions are unsuitable (e.g. because they are crowded) you may still be classed as being homeless. Your local council will consider your situation before deciding what help they can give you. Depending on your situation, you may be able to request emergency housing.

Your local council is legally obligated to help you if you are classed as being legally homeless, for example:

  • You have no legal right to live in accommodation anywhere in the world.
  • You are unable to access your home, for example, if your landlord has changed the locks or your relationship has broken down.
  • It isn’t reasonable to stay in your home, for example, if you are at risk of violence or abuse.
  • You are forced to live apart from your family or people you normally live with because there is no suitable accommodation for you.
  • You are living in very poor conditions, such as an overcrowded or unsafe home.

You can visit your local council in person, call their emergency helpline or visit their website for more information. If you are unable to apply for help yourself, you can give consent for someone else (usually a family member or a support worker) to speak on your behalf. Your local council may help you with emergency housing or long-term housing or help you to stay in your current home.

However, the type of help you will receive will depend on several factors, such as:

  • Whether you are eligible for assistance.
  • Whether you are classed as a priority need (for example, you are pregnant, have dependent children, are classed as vulnerable, you are 16 or 17 years old or you are homeless because of a fire or flood).
  • What caused you to become homeless.

If you are currently homeless, are about to become homeless or need help leaving a violent or abusive relationship or household, charities such as Refuge and Women’s Aid can help you to find emergency accommodation, including temporary accommodation in a refuge. You can visit their websites or call Refuge on 0808 2000 247. If you are a male victim of domestic abuse, you can contact Respect Men’s Advice Line by visiting their website, emailing them or using their web chat service, or calling them on 0808 801 0327

Depending on the area you live in, you may also be able to receive help from Crisis. They will give you advice and information on how to receive help in your area and want to do if you are sleeping rough.

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About the author

Nicole Murphy

Nicole Murphy

Nicole graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Psychology in 2013. She works as a writer and editor and tries to combine all her passions - writing, education, and psychology. Outside of work, Nicole loves to travel, go to the beach, and drink a lot of coffee! She is currently training to climb Machu Picchu in Peru.

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