Homelessness 'tops quarter of a million'

OVER a quarter of a million people in England are homeless, according to new research by charity Shelter.

To mark its 50th anniversary, Shelter carried out a repeat of its 1966 Green Book report, which saw researchers travel the country to interview homeless families.

The new study shows most homeless people - 230,010- are living in temporary accommodation provided by councils having been found to be owed statutory homeless duty. Another 19,666 are in hostels run by charities or support agencies, while around 3,500 are known to sleep rough on any given night.

But there were also 1,259 families - the equivalent of around 4,000 individuals - who were being accommodated by social services who do not qualify for statutory homeless duty and are "hidden" from official statistics.

Shelter said the actual number of these families is likely to be much larger as there is no detailed data at either national or local level. More than 40 local authorities contacted for the report had no record of how many families they were currently supporting.

Some "hidden" homeless are sleeping rough in vehicles or abandoned buildings, excluding them from rough sleeper counts. Others are sofa surfing with friends or relatives, having either been deemed ineligible for council support or offered a place they turned down for being unsuitable.

Last year, Shelter helped 523 families with children who were sleeping rough. A third of Shelter workers surveyed said they had encountered a family with children forced to sleep outside, for example in a park or tent, at least once a month. A similar proportion had seen families forced to sleep in a car.

In addition, Shelter helped 2,368 families with children who were sofa surfing.

While official statistics show the most common reason for people becoming homeless is eviction by a private landlord, Shelter's research suggests this could be under-counting the number of families made homeless due to problems with their housing. Most people it spoke to had approached their council because they could no longer stay with friends or family felt the reason they were homeless was not reflected accurately.

Shelter also said official statistics only look at what caused someone to lose their home without examining what is preventing them from finding another.

Its research showed in the vast majority of cases, the main barrier was finding somewhere affordable and that would accept people in need of housing benefit. This was the case even when families were working.

The report calls on the Government to end the current freeze on housing benefit for private renters and to review benefit levels to ensure they match rents.

It also urges ministers to ensure that at least a quarter of a million homes are built every year - and that half are "genuinely affordable".

"Hundreds of thousands of people will face the trauma of waking up homeless this Christmas," said Shelter chief executive Campbell Robb.

"Decades in the making, this is the tragic result of a nation struggling under the weight of sky-high rents, a lack of affordable homes and cuts to welfare support."

The Local Government Association said councils are doing everything they can with existing resources to tackle and prevent homelessness.

"Funding pressures are combining with a lack of affordable housing and rents continuing to rise above household incomes to leave many councils struggling to cope with rising homelessness across all areas of the country. Finding emergency housing for homeless people, particularly young or vulnerable people or those with families, is increasingly difficult for councils," said housing spokesperson Cllr Martin Tett.

"There is no silver bullet and councils alone cannot tackle rising homelessness. It is crucial that the Government recognise and address the wider factors that are increasing homelessness, such as the lack of affordable housing and welfare reforms.

"Councils need powers and funding to address the widening gap between incomes and rents, resume their historic role as a major builder of new affordable homes and join up all local services - such as health, justice and skills. This is the only way to deliver our ambition to end homelessness."