About Homelessness

This section is an introduction to the issue of homelessness. 

What Is Homelessness?

Homelessness is about more than sleeping on the street.  Homelessness means not having a home and includes rough sleepers as well as people who are staying with friends or family temporarily or in overcrowded, unsafe, or insecure accommodation.  Other people who might be eligible for help as homeless people include those who are living in conditions that are harmful to their health or who are at risk of violence or abuse in their homes.  You can find out more about what homelessess means by visiting the Shelter website. 

Why Do People Become Homeless?
People do not become homeless because of personal or moral failings. Some of the main causes of homeless include relationship breakdown and domestic violence, mental or physical health problems, and substance misuse. People who are leaving institutions are also more vulnerable to becoming homeless including people leaving hospital, prison, armed services or care. About a quarter of people who are homeless have been in local authority care, four in ten rough sleepers in London have spent time in prison and 3% of rough sleeping and single homeless people are British ex-service personnel [1]. Other reasons why people become homeless include a history of unemployment and the high cost of accommodation. Crisis has some excellent information about the causes and consequences of homelessness here.

Single Homelessness and Hidden Homelessness

The Hidden Truth about Homelessness report found that the majority of single and homeless people in the UK are hidden. Hidden homeless people were found to be staying in squats, sofa surfing or sleeping rough. Single homeless people were also found in backpacking hostels, in caravans or tents pitched unlawfully, in privately run homeless hostels and in prisons and hospitals about to be discharged and with nowhere to go. Of the single homeless people who sleep rough, many sleep in out of sight locations and with little support from homeless services. Many single homeless people experience multiple ways of being excluded from society including long term unemployment, mental and physical health problems, poor literacy, experience of the care system, disrupted education and substance misuse problems.

Homelessness and Mental Health Difficulties

Over 70% of people using homeless services report experiencing mental distress. A mental health crisis can make it very difficult for some people to look after their home and can impact on their ability to work full time. Sudden admission into hospital means that people with mental health difficulties often have very little time to prepare for their home to be looked after, and benefits can sometimes be reduced or stopped after four weeks in hospital. The highest rates of mental health difficulties are found among rough sleepers and young homeless people, and over two thirds of rough sleepers have both mental health and substance misuse problems [1]. You can find out more about housing and mental health by visiting the Mind website

Women and Homelessness

About 1 in 10 rough sleepers are women and around 45% of households accepted by local authorities as having priority needs for housing, and 41% of households in temporary accommodation, are single women with dependent children. In a typical day around 3,615 women and 3,580 children are supported in a refuge-based service in England [1]. Sadly, government cuts have led to an increase in women being turned away from women’s refuge services due to a lack of space, leading to more women rough sleeping or hidden and homeless [2].

Domestic violence is the single most quoted reason for women becoming homeless, although physical or mental health problems lead to many women being homeless too [3]. Women who have become homeless after fleeing an abusive relationship are especially vulnerable to experiencing further abuse [4].

“The research shows how many homeless women have experienced domestic and sexual violence and are not only homeless because of that abuse, but are often re-victimised in their attempts to keep a roof over their heads – forced to trade sex for somewhere to sleep or the promise of safety.” Nicola Harwin, Chief executive of Women’s Aid.

In Their Own Words

Three books published by homeless people can help everyone understand the pathway that goes into becoming homeless:

  • Unsettled:  The Triumphs and Trials of a Big Issue Man, by Graham Walker (www.bigissueman.co.uk, 2004)
  • A Street Cat Named Bob: How One Man and His Cat Found Hope on the Streets, by James Bowen, (Hodder Paperbacks, 2012)

Both of these books are worth reading to get a picture of how homeless people view life on the streets and how they they got there as well as their personal struggles to change their situation.

Another book worth reading is Stuart: A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters. Alexander Masters wrote this biography of Stuart Shorter and explains his experiences of homelessness. Although not an autobiography, it is very sensitively written and gives another good insight.

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