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Introduction to homelessness

In this article, we introduce case studies about homelessness, looking at the roles held by those who are tackling it in our local area.


Thinking about homelessness

“Sadly, many people view homelessness as the result of personal failings, and consider that if the economy is going well, there is no excuse for not getting on” Shelter
As a society, we often think of water, food and shelter as basic human requirements. However, thousands upon thousands of people across the world are living without the shelter they need. Sleeping rough in the open air, on cold, hard concrete, in doorways, parks or bus shelters, and in buildings not designed for habitation such as car parks, sheds and derelict buildings, was the stark reality for an estimated 2,688 people sleeping rough in England in 2020 (Homeless Link, 2020).

No official figures

This, really, is just an estimate. Many people who become homeless do not show up in official figures and are considered ‘hidden homeless’ (Reeve, 2011).
The vast majority of homeless people are families and single people who are not rough sleepers and may live on the sofas of friends and family, in hostels or refuges, in bed and breakfasts or hotels. For many people, this means poor quality accommodation which can lead to a downturn in health and wellbeing, both mental and physical.
It’s difficult to get global data on homelessness, because of the different terminology used to define ‘homeless’, and the vastly different experiences of people living in different parts of the world. Here, we’ll focus on the UK, but why not look into the situation in other parts of the world, and see how the national and local problems compare?

The UK’s housing crisis

The housing crisis in the UK is a long-term issue. While the population increases year on year, new housing construction does not match the level of demand and rent is typically very high.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic affected the country, some 8.4 million people were impacted by the housing crisis, some unable to afford mortgages, others living in overcrowded housing, or other affordable or unsuitable homes (Understanding Society, 2019).
There are myriad reasons a person could become homeless, including personal circumstances and factors outside of the person’s control (see Wilson and Barton, 2017). According to Shelter (2017), these may include one or more of the following:
  • individual factors including lack of qualifications, lack of social support, debts – especially mortgage or rent arrears – poor physical and mental health, relationship breakdown, and getting involved in crime at an early age;
  • family background, including family breakdown and disputes, sexual and physical abuse in childhood or adolescence, having parents with drug or alcohol problems, and previous experience of family homelessness;
  • an institutional background, including having been in care, the armed forces, or in prison.

Helping to alleviate homelessness

There are many roles people can take in helping to alleviate homelessness that go further than giving someone a few spare pennies. Charities like Shelter, Crisis and St Mungo’s provide outreach, legal support, advice, guidance and education to those struggling with bad housing or who find themselves without a home to go to.
They also campaign for change and work towards ending homelessness for good. The government and local councils also have a strategic role to play in terms of providing social housing and creating an infrastructure that supports the most vulnerable.
Reeve, K. (2011). The hidden truth about homelessness: Experiences of single homelessness in England. Crisis, London
Shelter. (2017). What causes homelessness? Shelter, published online
Understanding Society (2019) The UK Household Longitudinal Study
Wilson, W. and Barton, C. (2017), Statutory Homelessness in England Briefing Paper Number 01164, House of Commons Library, published online 7 July 2017
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