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How many people are homeless in England on any given night?

Francesca Albanese, Executive Director of Policy & Social Change


New figures published today provide the most up-to-date picture of homelessness in England. What these tell us is on any given night in 2020, 202,300 families and individuals are experiencing the worst forms of homelessness. This new data is a stark reminder that at any point this year one in 185 of us were living in dangerous and unstable situations, either forced onto the streets or trapped in insecure temporary accommodation.

The annual study, commissioned by Crisis and carried out by Heriot-Watt University, uses the most current information and has been designed in response to concerns that many people experiencing homelessness are not being accurately recorded in official statistics. This year’s figures are based on nine separate data sources and are the most robust to-date. As well as using new improved government data we have also conducted our own surveys to significantly enhance the research.

Core homelessness includes rough sleeping, people living in sheds, garages and other unconventional buildings, sofa surfing, hostels and unsuitable temporary accommodation such as B&Bs. This year the hostels category also includes emergency COVID accommodation that has been provided for people rough sleeping and at risk of rough sleeping during the pandemic.

The research shows for the last five years’ core homelessness has been rising year-on-year in England, reaching a peak just before the pandemic when the numbers of homeless households jumped from 207,600 in 2018 to over 219,000 at the end of 2019. The biggest factor behind the overall increase is sofa surfing. However, in percentage terms the increase between 2012 and 2019 was greatest for unsuitable temporary accommodation (171%) and rough sleeping (98%).

The past 12 months have seen a slight shift in this trend and there has been a decrease of 8% in core homelessness levels. This is predominantly due to government action in response to the pandemic, to support people sleeping rough, or living in accommodation where they could not self-isolate, to move into emergency accommodation including hotels. One of the most noticeable trends for 2020 is the 33% drop in rough sleeping on the previous year. There has also been a decrease in people sofa surfing from 124,200 to 111,100. This reflects other research by Crisis which reported large increases in people sofa surfing coming forward for help at the beginning of the pandemic, many of whom have been rehoused over the past few months.

While the emergency measures taken to support people sleeping rough into safe accommodation are welcome, the government needs to take a longer-term approach to tackling homelessness. If the severe shortage of social housing and underinvestment in housing benefit are not addressed the temporary drop in homelessness will be reversed. The economic outlook is bleak and we are set to see increasing levels of unemployment and, with it, more people pushed into homelessness. This can be prevented – the solutions are known and with enough political will this is a wrong that can be put right.

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