10 February 2021

Efforts by the government, councils and charities to find self-contained accommodation for all rough sleepers is widely viewed as one of the biggest success stories of the government’s coronavirus response, and is one the rare instances where the UK has fared well when compared with other nations.

Yet while the past year has brought renewed focus to the plight of those sleeping on the street, and fostered a new optimism that rough sleeping can be dramatically reduced in this country, it is important to point out that homelessness is not just about rough sleepers.

Other people facing homelessness in its various forms have attracted less coverage, including the group of more than 90,000 households living in temporary accommodation.

Each quarter the government publishes data for England looking at the people who are approaching their council to declare themselves homeless or at risk of homelessness. This data can offer a lot of insight into the huge homelessness crisis in England and challenges misconceptions about what homelessness looks like and who it most affects.

Inside Housing has delved into the latest data release, which covers the 12 months up until September 2020, to highlight the various ways homelessness manifests itself in this country and how well councils are dealing with it.

1. Homelessness affects women as much as it does men

While rough sleeping numbers tend to show that more men end up sleeping on the street than women, government data shows that homelessness affects women as much as it does men.

In the year up until September 2020, single men were the largest group of people to either become homeless or be threatened with homelessness, with 116,230 approaching their council. Combined with the 6,680 single fathers who approached their council, this brings the total number of male households to 122,910.

While far less single women (61,290) were homeless or at risk of homelessness during the same period, the number of women experiencing homelessness almost doubles when you add in the number of single mothers seeking help from their council (57,870). This brings the total number of female households who were homeless or at risk of homelessness in the year to 199,160.

In some ways, women experiencing homelessness, especially mothers, are much less visible, as pregnant women and families with children are legally entitled to temporary accommodation, meaning they are far less likely to end up on the streets.

While less women may experience the acute problem of street homelessness, living in temporary accommodation comes with its own set of problems, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In May last year, Inside Housing spoke to a number of mothers in temporary accommodation who reported issues such as lack of space, health fears and disrepair.

2. Black households are more likely to experience homelessness

While the majority of people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness in the year up until September last year were white, Black households were disproportionately affected by homelessness in comparison to their population size.

The above graph uses census data to show what percentage of households of different ethnicities applied for homelessness support over the year. It shows that 3.9% of Black households submitted homelessness applications during this period.

These statistics mean that in the year up until September 2020, one in every 25 Black households became homeless or were threatened with homelessness in comparison to one in every 101 white households. Meanwhile, one in every 73 Asian households approached their council for homelessness support, as well as one in every 35 where the main applicant’s ethnicity was mixed.

Polly Neate, chief executive at Shelter, has previously said that more must be done to address “the deep inequality and systemic racism that persists in the housing system”, with Black people also more likely to live in overcrowded housing.

3. More than a quarter of homeless households are placed in temporary accommodation away from their local area

Government data also shows how likely it is that homeless households will be moved away from their local area if their council provides them with temporary accommodation. This problem has been particularly acute over the past five years – as the above graph shows.

As of September last year, 28% of the 93,490 households living in temporary accommodation were living in a different local authority than the one they approached for help with their housing.

This is a particular problem in London, where 31% of those in temporary accommodation were living outside of their borough, compared with 13% for the rest of England.

Many London councils have increasingly relied on accommodation outside of their own boundaries to house homeless people they have a statutory duty toward. These local authorities usually blame a lack of accommodation within their own area for making these decisions.

The problem is well illustrated by the outer London borough of Enfield, which said in 2019 that nearly 60% of the temporary accommodation within its borough was used by other London councils. In turn, Enfield increasingly relied on neighbouring Harlow to house its residents in need of temporary accommodation, however the council has now made a commitment to stop doing this.

Being moved outside of the local authority area can have a huge impact on homeless households, who can be forced to change jobs or schools. Last year, an investigation from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman found that a man was forced to give up his job after Merton Council moved him three hours away to temporary accommodation in Birmingham.

4. Councils are increasingly relying on B&Bs

The graph above shows a steady increase in the use of B&B-type temporary accommodation across England since 2009. This is largely in line with a wider increase in the use of temporary accommodation by councils, which illustrates that the larger the homelessness crisis gets in England, the more councils have to rely on accommodation that is widely viewed as unsuitable.

As the above chart shows, the steady increase in the use of B&B accommodation accelerated in April last year. This is likely due to the efforts to house all rough sleepers when the coronavirus outbreak first hit, with many being placed in accommodation such as hotels and B&Bs.

Living in B&B accommodation generally means households have to share either a toilet, washing facilities or cooking facilities with other households. Since 2003, it has been against the law for councils to house families with children in privately owned B&Bs for more than six weeks.

The graph shows that households with children are much less likely to end up in B&Bs than those without. However, government data also shows that councils continue to break the six-week rule. In the year up to September 2020, councils in England housed 2,040 families with children in B&Bs for more than six weeks.

Source: Inside Housing