Rough sleeping is on the rise. According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), over 4,700 people in England slept rough on any single night in 2017, an increase of 169% since 2010. However, Crisis believes the figure is closer to 9,000. The problem is most prevalent in London, with a quarter of all rough sleepers found in the capital.
Rough sleeping accounts for just a small proportion of all people who are considered homeless. The majority stay in temporary accommodation such as hostels and night shelters, or sleep on other people’s sofas. Crisis estimates that there are 160,000 homeless households, or 236,000 people, Shelter’s estimate is higher at 307,000 people.
While no official statistics exist on the total number of homeless households, the number of households in temporary accommodation is a useful indicator of trends. London has the second highest concentration of households in temporary accommodation (after Luton), at 14.9 in every 1,000 households. Manchester has less than half the London average (6.7 in 1,000), but has experienced an unprecedented increase of 368% since 2010/2011. Cities such as Leeds and Sheffield have much lower rates, and numbers have fallen over the past seven years.
Figure 1: Households accommodated by the local authority, per 1,000 households, selected cities
The large increase in homelessness reflects a number of factors:
- The 2011 cuts to the Local Housing Allowance (Crisis, Shelter, National Audit Office). Given that 22% of all private renters in England receive housing benefit, welfare cuts have made private renting unaffordable for many low income households. This has resulted in many tenants being unable to renew tenancies. Since 2011, the loss of private tenancy has accounted for 71% of the increase in the number of households accepted by local authorities to receive homelessness relief in England.
- Affordability of private renting has also been compromised by the increasing gap between rental growth and wage growth. This problem has been most acute in London where rents increased by 24% between 2010 and 2017, while earnings increased by just 7.8% over the same period.
These problems could potentially be resolved by an adequate supply of social and affordable housing options. But as we write elsewhere, affordable housing supply has struggled to keep up. This has meant that low income households are increasingly living in the private rented sector where, in addition to affordability constraints, the Government has recognised that they remain vulnerable to restrictions posed by short tenancy lengths.
The government has pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it by 2027. The Rough Sleeping Strategy and the recent Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 are welcome steps in the right direction.
However, if structural economic and fiscal trends were the cause of the problem, then a reversal of those trends is likely to have the biggest impact on levels of homelessness. Wage growth that is faster than rental growth; targeted welfare support; and major supply-side reform all seem likely to promote a change in the supply and affordability of low-cost housing.
Without these, homelessness could be as high in 2040 as it is today.