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Protestors with a banner.
Homelessness charity Shelter stages a protest in Westminster, highlighting the slow progress of the Renters (Reform) Bill, which promised to abolish Section 21 eviction notices. Imageplotter/Alamy

Homelessness in England has reached record levels – here’s why, and how to fix it

Record numbers of people are living in temporary accommodation in England, according to the UK government’s latest reported figures. Statistics on statutory homelessness show that in March 2023, 104,510 households – including over 131,000 children – were living in hotels, hostels, B&Bs and the like.

These figures are the result of multiple crises. There is an insufficient supply of available and affordable housing in the UK, with more than 1.2 million households on social housing waiting lists in England alone. At the same time, there has been a sustained fall in social housing homes being built (39,562 in 2010 compared with 7,644 in 2022).

Government data also shows that the private rented sector has nearly doubled in size since 2020. It is now the second biggest tenure after owner occupation. This means that what happens in the private rented sector is affecting proportionally more and more of the population – and hits younger people particularly hard.

Tents are pitched outside a pub in London.
The numbers of people sleeping rough in England spiked in 2022. Richard Lewis/Alamy

In March 2020, in a bid to stop the spread of COVID, the government funded interventions to get people sleeping rough off the streets. This public health intervention, dubbed the Everyone In campaign prompted a drop of 37% in the 2020 homelessness figures and a further 9% in 2021.

This confirms what my research has long shown: with the necessary funding and political support, local authorities and social housing providers can dramatically improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness.

The English housing lottery

According to a recent analysis by the BBC, competition in the private rented sector has left 20 people vying for each tenancy. This represents a tripling of demand since 2019.

In May 2023, prospective tenants interviewed by the Evening Standard testified to the extent to which demand has outstripped supply in London. They spoke about properties in mouldy condition, others going for £150 or £200 above the asking rental price, others still with six-month break clauses. They described how looking for a place to rent – and facing discrimination in the process – was affecting their mental health. As one man put it:

You feel powerless because landlords know that if you don’t take it, they’ll find someone who’ll offer more.

The local housing allowance – the rate used to calculate housing benefit available to people – has been frozen since 2020. As a result, the amount of state support people are able to get does not track market rates, which have risen by 20% in that same period.

In July 2023, secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, Michael Gove, announced that his department would prioritise “urban regeneration and new inner-city renaissance” as a means for getting more homes built. This suggests Gove is seeking to further tweak the planning system by focusing on investment urban areas.

Instead of widening potential land use, Gove wants to regenerate cities. This will compound the housing issues facing those living in rural areas – tourism and the second home boom is affecting rural and coastal property markets, making housing even more unaffordable for local people and driving hidden homelessness – homelessness not accounted for in official statistics.

At the same time, Gove has not addressed the need to boost building for social rentals in order to meet the needs of the millions of people on the waiting list.

A family poses in front of a mural.
Evictions and a lack of affordable housing are pushing more and more families into hostels, B&Bs and hotels. PA Images/Alamy

Housing precarity among young people

Where there is a lack of affordable housing and a lack of rental housing, there will be more homelessness. With the Everyone In campaign’s success in 2021, the government demonstrated that it had the means to actually tackle this problem.

However, in 2022, the numbers spiked again. Relative to the 2021 figures, there was a 26% increase in people sleeping rough.

A House of Commons library briefing in March 2023 highlighted that, if the government wants to meet its stated target of eradicating rough sleeping by 2024, research has long shown what needs to be put in place – a long-term strategy, thorough cross-party working and long-term funding. The briefing also pointed out that the government’s own figures suggest that without such bold action, it will miss its own target.

Youth homelessness is of particular concern. Data collated by charities, including Homeless Link and the New Horizon Youth Centre, in 2022 showed that 129,000 young people had sought help with housing from their local authority.

Much of this is hidden from public gaze. These young people often stay with friends for short periods or live in precarious conditions. Their vulnerability is only heightened by societal assumptions that they are “adult enough” to manage on their own, but not “grown-up enough” to expect to have their own place.

These assumptions are made clear in the fact that benefits are capped at a “shared accommodation” rate unless there are specific circumstances, for example, proven experience of domestic violence.

Those who no longer fall in the 18-24 age bracket, but are part of “generation rent”, have already been campaigning on the impact of inequality in housing and the issues faced in the private rented sector.

In 2022, I researched what had worked in how the Everyone In campaign was implemented. I found that where local authorities, social housing providers, healthcare, charities and the private sector were funded and supported, they could work nimbly, effectively sharing information and collaborating to achieve outcomes quickly.

At national level, however, the single most vital ingredient is the political will to actually deliver properly affordable housing. This requires the state to provide sustained funding and to have a long-term strategic approach. Failing this, the lessons learned since the start of the pandemic, on the importance to society of a place to call home, will be lost.

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