Monday, 2 January 2017

A History of the Scale of Homelessness in England

This is a brief history of trends in the scale of homelessness in England. I wanted to do this in order to work out whether current levels of homelessness and more specifically rough sleeping are unprecedented or not and also to identify causes in the trends.

Crappy statistics

Statistics about homelessness are crap. They're always missing people out, they keep changing the way they compile them, there is sometimes pressure on from the top to get certain results back from a count, even if this means excluding some people. But this doesn't mean that they're completely useless.

Having some data to look at is better than nothing. When counts of homeless people have been done in the same way for a few years in a row it's possible to get an idea of trends, plus, even where data is obviously far from perfect we can get a 'ball park' figure. For example - a count of rough sleepers in London in 1949 found only 6 people sleeping rough. Do I think that there were really only 6 people sleeping rough in London in 1949? Absolutely not but you'd find at least 6 on any given street in central London now so we can take it as a fact that things are now much worse than then. In addition we can look at what else we know about different time periods. There was still a huge housing crisis in London after WW2 in London (due to a combination of many bombed out homes and the return of large numbers of soldiers) but the response to it from those affected was to launch a huge squatting movement meaning many people who were homeless were not sleeping on the streets. In contrast with now we again are facing a huge housing crisis but squatting in residential properties has recently been criminalised. This further confirms the trend and builds up a big picture of what is going on.

The story

What we know to start off with is that a count of rough sleepers was undertaken in late 2015 finding 3569 people. We also know that this count has been conducted in the same way since 2011 when 2181 people were counted (the 2010 figure of 1768 is the basis of the claim that rough sleeping doubled in the 5 years from 2010-15 but it wasn't done in quite the same way). When you work in a charity that helps homeless people (as I do) and you look back on the last 3 years and see that numbers of people coming in for help have risen by 60% it really feels like a crisis. What I want to know is how it compares with the situation in various times past and why numbers have fluctuated.

The idea that homelessness can all be put down to laziness or drug addiction is laughable. It's a complex issue but the rapid rise that we've seen in recent years can't be put down as being due to a huge increase in laziness!

In the beginning

Homelessness has existed in some form for centuries in England. Homeless people have left little record of themselves early on, in fact that main evidence we have for their existence going back more than a few hundred years are anti-vagrancy laws (which go back to at least the 6th century).

The first estimate of how many 'vagrants' there were in the Kingdom was taken in the 1600s - at that time it was said that there were around 20,000. It's extremely difficult to gauge how accurate this is but it's a notably high figure, considering the population was far lower in those days. Vagrants usually slept rough, they sometimes wandered the country looking for work or sometimes looking for charity. So, without wanting to brush over the huge differences between the life of a 17th Century 'vagrant' and a 21st Century 'rough sleeper' they are probably the most comparable. Another group of homeless people we count today are the number in hostels. In medieval times monasteries ran 'hospitals' for travellers and 'the poor' to stay in (meaning houses of hospitality rather than medical institutions). Again, they would have been very different to a modern hostel but vaguely comparable - there were 700 of these founded in England between 1066 and the middle of the 16th Century, the median number of beds was 12 so we might hazard a guess that there were about 8400 beds available (in 2014 there were 36,540).

Although monastery provision was rough to a sudden end in 1530s almshouses continued to exist in some shape or form but it wasn't until later that century with the 'Act for the relief of the poor' came in that provision was centrally organised in any meaningful way. This also saw the introduction of workhouses for the poor.

Modern times

Coming in to the 20th century, by the 1930s 17,000 people were still staying in 'spikes' which were institutions that had descended from the old workhouses. There was also a street count in London of rough sleepers that found 80 people.

After WW2 things got much better for a few decades. A massive council house building programme was a big factor and the introduction of the welfare state to replace the old 'poor laws' was another. It wasn't until the 1960s that homelessness began to rise again.

In 1965 a number of counts were made due to public attention on the issue (partly stoked by the film 'Cathy Come Home'.
  • 965 people were counted sleeping rough by the national assistance board.
  • 1367 people claiming national assistance (an unemployment benefit) who were down as having no accommodation. 
  • 567 commercial or charitable hostels and lodging houses were accommodating 28,789 people.
  • 1956 people accommodated in National Assistance Board  reception centres (the very last remnants of what was the workhouse and then the 'spike'). 
Suggestions have been made that the increase during the 1960s was as a result of the final slum clearances occurring.

The next really significant event was the 1977 homelessness act, the basis for current state assistance to homeless people. It wasn't enough to counter the decline of council housing in the 1980s though. It's widely believed that homelessness took a further turn for the worse during the 80s although little data seems to be publicly available.

By the 1990s we start to see a few more street counts being done for which the data is available. In 1991 the census attempted to count everyone who was sleeping rough on the night it was taken and found 2703 but by 1998 the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions estimated that this number had fallen to more like 1850, a gradual decline. This is also mirrored in the number of people who were seeking help from local authorities under the 1977 act (subsequently updated by further acts in 1996 and 2002) - 300,560 in 1992/3 down to 244,130 in 1997/8.

By 2003/4 the situation had deteriorated again 135,420 households accepted as homeless by local authorities (a different number to the ones above which refer to people approaching their local authority for help - not necessarily actually being accepted as homeless and being 'owed a duty'). This was a peak statistically but after this it gets difficult to tell what was happening. A new 'housing options' approach was brought in to get the numbers down. This provided new ways for local authorities to not count people and numbers fell to a low in 2009/10 of only 40,020 people being accepted. This decline was probably a mixture of people not being counted and the effects of some big efforts and lots of funding from the labour government at the time to reduce the issue.

Meanwhile in background something else was going on. During the post-war 20th century the proportion of people housed in the private rented sector (with all it's insecurity and poor conditions) had been going down while the numbers of people housed in social housing or owning their homes was rising. The number in social housing peaked in the early 80s and the number owning their homes peaked in 1997. Since then the private rented sector has gone from housing about 10% of the country in 2002 to around 20% now (with recent suggestions that this may actually be a huge underestimation due to the number of people in shared houses - particularly in London and the South East).

This come back of the private rented sector was engineered. As social housing was no longer being built on a large scale and much of it was being sold off the rights of private tenants were being ripped up (rights to remain in their homes, regulation on rent rises). This was in order to induce private landlords back in to the market and in worked. What we ended up with though was millions of people who now were always potentially at 2 months notice from being kicked out of their homes and little protection from harassment, poor conditions and un-affordable rent rises. Whatever efforts had gone into fudging the numbers could no longer hide it. Add to this the welfare reforms that ripped away funding for hostels and other supported housing schemes as well as many reforms that either made it more likely for people to become homeless or more difficult to escape from homelessness once they were in it.

Numbers of rough sleepers have shot up to levels that seem on the face of it to surpass any previous period in the 20th and 21st centuries. Towards the end of 2016 the charity Shelter estimated that more than a quarter of a million people were homeless altogether (a figure calculated to include all the people sleeping rough, in hostels and in temporary accommodation from local authorities. They said that it was a conservative estimate.

There is also no real reason to hope that the rise will stop or even slow down any time soon. There are further welfare reforms to come that will exacerbate it further (the benefit cap introduced in December 2016 is yet to have it's full effect and the full roll out of Universal Credit are both likely to cause further chaos). Plus the level of house building has no recovered since the recession.


This is an acute housing crisis, in some respects probably the worst that we've seen in a 100 years or more and it's got further to go yet.

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