Homelessness policy is devolved across the UK and each country produces data and statistics on rough sleeping according to their own legislative framework; the different approaches prevent direct comparison between each country's statistics.
Because of the different methods and statistics, it is difficult to definitively report trends on rough sleeping for the UK as a whole.
Trends in rough sleeping levels in each country of the UK vary, with recent peaks in either 2017 or 2018.
In 2020, snapshot estimates of rough sleeping levels were lower than previous years, possibly related to policy responses, including providing emergency accommodation during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to people who sleep rough.
Statistics indicate that more people who sleep rough in the UK are men, with an overall population ratio of around six men to one woman.
Because of the challenges in identifying people who sleep rough in data collections, all topic statistics are estimates, providing general insight into the scale and characteristics of this population.
People who sleep rough, because of their lack of secure accommodation and often co-existing health issues or other vulnerabilities, represent one of the most disadvantaged groups in society. In the UK, homelessness policy varies as it is devolved. Different legislation has been enacted so each country has policies or strategies to end or reduce rough sleeping1.
Currently no UK-wide rough sleeping official statistics are published. Countries in the UK have different approaches to measure and understand rough sleeping, within their respective policy frameworks. Before 2020, rough sleeping official statistics were solely derived from snapshot surveys and administrative data, two different types of data sources. During 2020 and 2021, additional management information has been collected and published as part of the process to protect those at risk of rough sleeping during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and is complementary to the regular statistics.
Findings from different types of data source should not be compared because of the different data collection approaches, coverage of people who sleep rough, and data collection periods. While findings from the same type of data source can be compared and used to develop UK-wide insights, this needs to be done carefully as methods of data collection and legislation vary.
This article brings together published data from across the UK to present a picture of rough sleeping and the people who rough sleep in the UK. In doing so it:
provides an overview of the range of statistics produced and published in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland relating to rough sleeping, including the most recent findings and trends
explains how and why different statistics can be compared, and why certain statistics cannot be compared
The article includes the latest published official statistics and management information up to March 2021, and so contains statistics covering periods before and during the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic has shifted priorities that have influenced data collection and statistics publications; some have been suspended or delayed while some new data sources have been created because of re-prioritisation of analytical and operational resources and public health justifications.
This commentary has been written by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in consultation with the producers of the quoted statistics. It is the fourth in a series of cross-UK articles on housing and homelessness, the previous articles being on the private rented sector, homelessness, and affordable housing.
Notes for: Scale of rough sleeping in the UK: sources
- For more information: England – The rough sleeping strategy, Scotland – Ending homelessness and rough sleeping: action plan, Wales – Homelessness strategy, and Northern Ireland – Homelessness strategy
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, snapshot surveys are regularly conducted each autumn to identify and record the number of people sleeping rough at a point in time. There is no rough sleeping snapshot conducted in Scotland. Findings from snapshots provide a general indication of rough sleeping levels at the time they are conducted in each country and do not measure the number of people who may have experienced rough sleeping over a longer period. Although the statistics aim to include every person who is sleeping rough, it is inherently difficult to estimate the extent of rough sleeping at any point in time. Figures 1, 2 and 3 present the findings from these snapshots for all available years in each country.
While differences between each country's snapshots exist, the official statistics suggest that the number of people sleeping rough reached a peak in 2017, with nearly 5,000 people sleeping rough across England and Wales based on their separate measures for a single night in autumn. By 2019, this had fallen to below 4,500, a decrease of around 10%.
England and Northern Ireland estimated lower levels of rough sleeping on a single night in autumn 2020 than in 2019, continuing trends of falling levels of rough sleeping from peaks in 2017 and 2018 respectively. While their approaches to estimation were the same as in previous years, the 2020 snapshots coincided with lockdowns and tier restrictions across the UK, which likely affected people's risk of rough sleeping. The findings will also have been influenced by interventions to provide emergency accommodation to people who sleep rough or those at risk of sleeping rough during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
One further way to explore the scale of rough sleeping in each country is by adjusting snapshot estimates by population size. Figure 4 shows the rates of rough sleeping per 100,000 people in each country, based on single night estimates for each year in which they were conducted.
Rough sleeping rates in England and Wales have followed similar patterns with increases between 2015 and 2017 and then some decline by 2019. England's 2020 rate is a large reduction from 2019 and below its rate in 2014, though higher than between 2010 to 2013. In Northern Ireland, the rates for 2018 and 2019 are similar and then halve to 1.0 person sleeping rough per 100,000 people in 2020.
Comparing information from across the UK
In each country, a similar approach and definition is used to identify and count people sleeping rough, broadly referring to people observed – or expected to be, if recorded by an informed estimate – sleeping in the open air or in places not designed for habitation.
Individual surveys in all local areas within a country are conducted to estimate the number of people sleeping rough on a typical night, either through a physical count or informed estimation. The implementation of the count within each country is supported by central guidance and through collaboration with local services that engage with homeless and rough sleeping populations. Regular snapshots are all conducted in the autumn. This provides consistency and controls for seasonal patterns in rough sleeping. As the overall approach is largely consistent over time, trends can be interpreted.
Statistics between countries are not directly comparable because of small variations in methods. Each country sets different guidance, rules, and stages for the data collections, which can contribute to some of the variation in figures over time and between areas. Any individual estimate can also be affected by factors such as weather, topography, the availability of alternatives to rough sleeping on the street such as night shelters, and knowledge of the local rough sleeping population by those arranging and conducting the snapshot.
As a result, the snapshots are best used to highlight the general level of rough sleeping at a point in time or to indicate possible trends in changes in rough sleeping over time in each country and for the UK.
Rough sleeping during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
During the coronavirus pandemic, governments have sought to understand the scale of rough sleeping by regularly requesting estimates of the number of people sleeping rough in each local authority. These snapshot estimates, published quickly as management information, provide timely, additional insight on the scale of rough sleeping during the pandemic.
Snapshots in England (Figure 5) and Wales (Figure 6) report lower levels of rough sleeping than in their most recent official snapshots. It is possible that the provision of emergency accommodation during the pandemic reduced rough sleeping levels, however, a like-for-like comparison with the snapshots to effectively evidence this interpretation is not available.
Management information snapshots cannot be directly compared with the higher quality, regular official statistics because of differences in data collection, including definitions, time periods and quality assurance. In addition, it is important to not draw too many conclusions from changes month to month in the management information snapshots. Instead it is important to focus on general trends.
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The devolved policy framework, with different definitions and legislation, sets the support homeless people, including people sleeping rough, are entitled to from local authorities or government bodies in each country of the UK, including secure and temporary accommodation. These differences in statutory duties and processes affect the statistics collected and prevents direct comparisons between the countries' statutory homelessness statistics, including measures relating to rough sleeping. The Government Statistical Service Interactive Tool on Homelessness and article on homelessness statistics explain some of these differences.
Statistics that are based on administrative data collected in the statutory homelessness application process relate to households seeking, being offered, or provided support through homelessness duties. While they add to the evidence base on homelessness and rough sleeping in the UK, they cannot be used to estimate levels of rough sleeping. Some people who sleep rough or are at risk of rough sleeping will be ineligible for support or will not make an application. In these instances, those individuals and households will not be present in the statistics. Changes in these statistics' trends may reflect changes in the proportion of people who sleep rough seeking assistance or changes to eligibility rather than levels of rough sleeping.
Statutory homelessness statistics in England and Scotland include measures that relate to rough sleeping, though these are not the same measure which therefore limits comparability; however, trends in each country can be explored (Table 1). Measures of rough sleeping in Wales and Northern Ireland are not currently published in their statutory homelessness statistics.
|Measure||April 2018 to|
|April 2019 to|
|Households owed a |
homeless (relief) duty
in England and rough
sleeping on approach
|Households applying for|
homelessness support in
Scotland and reporting having
slept rough in the three months
before their application
|Households applying for |
homelessness support in
Scotland and reporting having
slept rough the night
before their application
Download this table Table 1: England and Scotland record different measures relating to people who sleep rough in their homelessness statistics.xls .csv
Findings and trends
In England, the number of homeless duties owed to households rough sleeping on approach has generally been increasing with higher levels in 2020 than in previous years (Figure 7). Within this overall trend, there is a spike of homeless duties owed to households rough sleeping on approach in April to June 2020. This coincides with the initial provision of emergency accommodation to people rough sleeping and people at risk of rough sleeping during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many of whom were then encouraged to apply for homelessness support. Data prior to the implementation of the Homelessness Reduction Act in April 2018 are not comparable with the current statistics, which are published each quarter.
In Scotland, between April 2019 and March 2020, around 1,600 households who applied for homelessness support included a household member who reported having experienced rough sleeping the night before their application, and around 2,900 households reported a household member experiencing rough sleeping in the three months prior to their application. These findings are similar to previous years though have increased from the lowest recorded year of April 2015 to March 2016, in line with an increase in overall homelessness applications. The overall trend over a longer time period has been a reduction in the both the number and proportion of applications where rough sleeping was reported (Figure 8).
A number of factors may explain these trends, including policy changes, which are discussed in the Homelessness in Scotland bulletins published by the Scottish Government. Notably, legislation in Scotland more greatly diverged from the rest of the UK with the abolition of priority need assessment in December 2012. This means all eligible households assessed as unintentionally homeless must be offered settled accommodation by local authorities and they must be offered temporary accommodation until this is available. Where priority need is present, these duties to secure accommodation are more limited. As a consequence, a larger proportion of people sleeping rough may be expected to make statutory homeless applications from 2013.
Between April 2020 (at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic) and September 2020, there was an increase of 4% in the number of applications reporting a household member rough sleeping in the night prior to their application, when compared with the equivalent months in 2019. Conversely, between April 2020 and September 2020, there was a decrease of 4% in the number of applications reporting a household member rough sleeping in the previous three months, when compared with the equivalent months in 2019. The overall number of applications between April to September 2020 decreased by 10%, therefore, an increased proportion of applications were from households reporting rough sleeping (Table 2). These findings may be a result of additional efforts by local authorities to provide accommodation to people who sleep rough since the onset of the pandemic.
|April 2019 to |
|April 2020 to|
|Number slept rough |
(previous three months)
|Number slept rough|
Download this table Table 2: The proportion of homelessness applications in Scotland from households reporting having slept rough increased in April to September 2020 when compared to than the equivalent months in 2019.xls .csv
For rough sleeping statistics it is often not advisable to directly compare across countries or data sources, but by bringing together the different data sources we can start to see a more complete picture of rough sleeping across the UK and over time. By understanding the purpose, strengths, and limitations of different data collections and by understanding that the choice of data collection reflects each country's legislation, circumstances and priorities, sources can be somewhat brought together.
Annual rough sleeping snapshot statistics conducted in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland indicate that the number of people sleeping rough rose to a peak in 2017 or 2018 with reduced levels in subsequent years, including a notable decline in 2020. The data collection method has similarities in each country and each year, enabling partial and qualified comparisons between these countries and over time.
The snapshot statistics provide point-in-time estimates of rough sleeping levels on a single night. The methodology provides robust, verified estimates but despite best efforts some people rough sleeping may be missed. Snapshots can be difficult to conduct and findings can be affected by external factors such as the weather.
Statutory homelessness statistics in England and Scotland separately report changes in the number of approaches to local authorities from people sleeping rough in recent years, including during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. These statistics are not direct measures of observed rough sleeping and are based on approaches to the local authorities and individuals or households' disclosure of having slept rough. Some people who are sleeping rough do not apply for, or are not eligible for, homelessness support and would not be included in these statistics. The varied legislation across the UK countries sets the duties of this support and should be considered firmly in any interpretation of figures over time or between countries.
Management information provides the timeliest source of information on rough sleeping, and the effects of the coronavirus response. The data are collected by governments for operational purposes and are a lower quality data source with limited comparability to regular statistics.
Without this deeper understanding of each of the sources, the figures they provide and the trends they illustrate can appear contradictory. For example, official snapshots in England show rough sleeping has fallen in 2020 and management information suggests this may have continued into 2021, yet the number of people reporting having slept rough in statutory homelessness statistics has increased in 2020. By understanding the sources, possible explanations emerge, such as people who were sleeping rough were provided emergency accommodation during the pandemic and may have subsequently applied for homelessness support, likely causing the spike in statutory homelessness statistics in Quarter 2 (Apr to June) 2020.
This illustrates how the different statistics relate to different aspects of the rough sleeping and homelessness picture and highlights why they cannot be summed to produce a purported total. Variations in trends between different statistics and between different countries should not be unexpected and instead promote further inquiry, helping to develop the richer understanding of rough sleeping in the UK.Back to table of contents
England and Scotland regularly publish information about the characteristics of people who sleep rough as part of their statistics. In England, these relate to the people sleeping rough identified during the annual autumn snapshot. In Scotland, these relate to characteristics of lead applicants for homelessness support in which a household member has self-reported rough sleeping either the night prior to or within the previous three months before their application1.
Wales and Northern Ireland only publish characteristic information for homeless populations as a whole because of potential disclosure risks and data collection approaches. On occasion, additional characteristics are published as part of research such as findings from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Rough Sleeping Questionnaire (RSQ). There is no data collection that aims to understand the characteristics of people who sleep rough in the UK as a whole.
Because of the varied data collections of each of these sources, the characteristic breakdowns are not directly comparable, though they can provide insight into the similarities and differences between countries. Different measures and time series are available depending on the source.
Together these sources can be used as an evidence base to understand the general characteristics of people who sleep rough in the UK. They broadly suggest that the most common characteristics of people who sleep rough are being:
of UK nationality
between the ages of 25 and 64 years
This is different to the demographic profile of all applicants for homelessness support within the UK, which has a more mixed gender profile and a less concentrated age profile2.
In the most recent data, over 8 out of 10 people who were rough sleeping in England were male (Figure 9). In Scotland, in applications for homelessness support in which rough sleeping was reported, over 8 out of 10 lead applicants were male (Figure 10). These proportions are similar to those available in previous years3.
In Scotland, for applications for homelessness support in which rough sleeping was reported, over two-thirds of lead applicants were aged between 25 and 49 years, whereas only around a third of Scotland’s overall population is between these ages. By contrast, while around a fifth (19%) of Scotland’s population is aged over 65 years, only 2% of lead applicants were in this age band for applications in which rough sleeping was reported (Figure 11).
In 2020, most people sleeping rough in England were aged 26 years and over (87%), with a small minority aged 25 years or under (5%) or not known (7%). In the last four years, the proportion of people who sleep rough aged 25 years and under has been falling (Figure 12). There is some uncertainty as age was not known for around 1 in 10 people sleeping rough in each year between 2017 and 2020.
Between 2017 and 2020, around two-thirds of people sleeping rough in England were UK nationals, ranging between 64% (in 2018 and 2019) and 72% (in 2020). Around 1 in 5 were from the EU, with around 1 in 20 from non-EU countries. There is some uncertainty in these proportions as nationality was not known for around 1 in 10 people sleeping rough (Figure 13).
Rough Sleeping Questionnaire in England
To improve the evidence base on people sleeping rough and rough sleeping in England, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) conducted in-depth research between February 2019 and March 2020. The demographic results of the RSQ were consistent with the rough sleeping snapshot. In this sample of individuals who had slept rough at least once during the previous twelve months, 82% were men, 17% were women, the average age was 41 years, and 81% of respondents were UK nationals. Other demographic information was also presented in the findings, including ethnicity and sexual orientation (Table 3).
|Average age||41 years|
|Black British or African or Caribbean||5%|
|Mixed or Multiple ethnic groups||4%|
|Asian or Asian British incl. Chinese||2%|
|Other ethnic group||4%|
|EU or EEA||14%|
|Non-EU or EEA||3%|
|Homosexual or bisexual||7%|
|Total sample size||563|
Download this table Table 3: Demographics of people sleeping rough from the Rough Sleeping Questionnaire in England.xls .csv
Limitations of characteristics statistics
Statistics on the characteristics of people who sleep rough are based on identifying people sleeping rough or their disclosure of previously having slept rough. It also relies on disclosure of information about their characteristics which an individual may wish to withhold. Consequently, these statistics may undercount the amount and proportions of people sleeping rough with particular characteristics. Individuals ineligible for public funds may be unknown to services and would not be successful applicants for homelessness support. This could also influence the reported statistics as well as their risk of rough sleeping.
Notes for: Characteristics of people who sleep rough
- Most homelessness support applications in Scotland in which rough sleeping is self-reported are from individuals.
- The profile of homelessness support applicants in each country of the UK can be explored through the publications and statistics of Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (England), Scottish Government, Welsh Government, and Department for Communities (Northern Ireland). A whole UK commentary is published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
- Terms used reflect categories in the data collection as reported by the responsible agencies.
A rich variety of statistics are published about rough sleeping within the UK. This provides an evidence base to deliver services and support to these often-vulnerable people. Statistics are just one element of the evidence base – departments and devolved administrations also run their own research programmes as well as consulting experts and commissioning studies.
In each country in the UK, different data sources are developed, and approaches are undertaken, to produce statistics to measure and understand rough sleeping. This is because devolved policies on rough sleeping and homelessness vary and each department or devolved administration is responsible for producing statistics that meet their national needs.
As a result, it is difficult to build a UK-wide picture of rough sleeping as the statistics are not directly comparable. This article improves coherence by highlighting the similarities and differences of these statistics and by explaining the ways in which different sources can be compared or not. This provides a clearer picture of rough sleeping and the people who sleep rough in the UK, enhancing the evidence base.
Many of the statistics reported in this article are recent developments, meeting user needs to improve the evidence base on rough sleeping. In particular, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and policies in response to the pandemic have changed the landscape for people who sleep rough and has required rapid data and insights to understand the effects of these changes. Statistics producers have responded by adjusting existing statistics or producing new data sources, alongside information about how these sources can be interpreted and compared in the context of the pandemic and earlier statistics.Back to table of contents
People sleeping rough
People sleeping, about to bed down or bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments). People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations or "bashes", which are makeshift shelters, often comprised of cardboard boxes).
Note: This definition is from England's Rough Sleeping Snapshot; a similar definition is used in Wales and Northern Ireland.
An exercise to count or estimate the level of rough sleeping in an area on a typical night or a range of nights.
Data on applicants for homelessness support collected by local authorities or governments, which can be subsequently processed and analysed to produce homelessness statistics.
Information collected by local authorities or governments for operational purposes, for instance recording the number of people who sleep rough provided with emergency accommodation, not specifically designed to produce official statistics.
In general, across the UK, a person is regarded as homeless if they lack a secure place in which they are entitled to live or they are not reasonably able to stay where they currently live. Individuals or households who are homeless or threatened with homelessness will be owed a duty to help secure housing, depending on country-specific legislation and the individual circumstances of the applicant. Legislation and the application process is described in more detail in the Government Statistical Service's (GSS) interactive tool for homelessness.
Rough sleeping on approach
A category used to record and report previous accommodation of applicants for homelessness support in England.
Rough sleeping at the time of Local Authority Approach: "Rough sleepers are defined as those who were, in the judgement of the assessor, rough sleeping when they approached a local authority for help."
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, legislation confers that some categories of applicants for homelessness assistance have a priority need for accommodation. Scotland do not test for priority need.
Applicants who have priority need for housing include:
households with dependent children or a pregnant woman
people homeless because of fire or flood
people who are particularly vulnerable because of ill health, disability, old age, having been in care or as a result of having been in custody or care, or having become homeless because of violence or the threat of violence
In Scotland, when households seek assistance for housing-related issues from their local authority, they may be presented with advice on a range of housing options, including the opportunity to make a homelessness application. This is known as Housing Options and began to be implemented from around 2009. More information is available from the Scottish Government's homelessness statistics collections.Back to table of contents
It is inherently difficult to identify all people who sleep rough and to therefore include them in data collections when compared with people with more secure forms of accommodation.
Experiences of rough sleeping vary. The overall rough sleeping population can consist of new people sleeping rough, people who sleep rough regularly, and people who have previously slept rough who are sleeping rough again following periods in other accommodation. People may sleep rough for only one night, all nights in a period, or some nights in a period, possibly alongside other forms of insecure or temporary accommodation such as night shelters or sofa surfing. The experience of rough sleeping for an individual may be persistent, sporadic, repeated or one-off. The individuals and number of people sleeping rough on one night will not be the same as on other nights.
A person who is sleeping rough may seek to be hidden because of the insecurity and the risks of their situation. A person who sleeps rough or who has previously slept rough may not disclose this information to local authorities if applying for homelessness support.
These factors make measuring and understanding rough sleeping in the UK challenging. As a result, there is uncertainty in statistics relating to rough sleeping, so they should be interpreted as estimates that provide general insight into the scale and characteristics of this population.
Each data collection that underpins the rough sleeping statistics discussed in this article has its own purpose, strengths and limitations. This article highlights some of the main factors and dimensions that shape the quality of these statistics, especially when there are shared elements for multiple sources or countries, however, more comprehensive discussion is available through the links to the quoted statistics' original publications.
This report uses published government statistics related to rough sleeping from the following data providers: Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), Scottish Government and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior managers (SOLACE), Welsh Government, and Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
Related statistics in Wales and Northern Ireland:
MHCLG, Coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency accommodation survey data: May 2020
MHCLG, Coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency accommodation survey data: January 2021
SOLACE, Homelessness applications, acceptances, refusals and not offered & Number of households in temporary accommodation per week or month
Welsh Government, Homeless and rough sleepers in emergency accommodation in COVID-19 crisis (management information), up to 28 June 2020
Welsh Government, Homelessness accommodation provision and rough sleeping: March 2021
Northern Ireland Housing Executive, The Way Home: Homelessness response to COVID-19
Other:Back to table of contents
Analysts across the Government Statistical Service (GSS) are continuously improving the quality and detail of statistics on homelessness and rough sleeping. These improvements are led by user needs, understood through working with organisations, charities, academics, and individuals, as well as through strong collaboration and shared learning between departments and devolved administrations.
The principles of collaboration, user-driven changes and transparency guide future changes to homelessness and rough sleeping statistics and research. More information can be found on the GSS website, including about our working groups, workplans and interactive tools, or you can get in contact with the producers of the various statistics.
We welcome your views on the content of this article. Please contact us using the email address Gss.firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss any aspect of housing and homelessness statistics.Back to table of contents
Contact details for this Article
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