Homelessness is a frightening prospect that anyone could experience, with people visibly living on the streets only making up a percentage of the problem.

Rather than allowing people to experience homelessness, it’s important to understand the causes of homelessness, ensuring support can be provided that tackles the source of the issue. With that in mind, read on to learn about the root causes of homelessness.

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Before we get started

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What is homelessness?

People experiencing homelessness are normally equated to people who are considered statutory homeless. This includes anyone who is entitled to housing from their local authority by meeting several criteria.

There’s also an unquantifiable number of people who are considered to be experiencing hidden homelessness. They might be sofa surfing, squatting in derelict or poorly maintained buildings, or sharing overcrowded properties.

Rooflessness is often the most visible type of homelessness, made up of people visibly sleeping on the streets, but this group only represents the tip of the iceberg. 3,898 people were counted as sleeping rough on a single night across England in autumn 2023.

Combining all types of homelessness paints a more bleak picture, with a total of 309,000 people experiencing homelessness in England, as at the end of 2023. These three types of homelessness have a number of causes we are striving to address, not only to help those already experiencing homelessness, but also to prevent others from finding themselves in the same situation.

Behavioural vs structural causes of homelessness

There are two primary causes of homelessness: behavioural and structural. Although categorised separately, the two are inter-connected. Structural factors can contribute to behavioural issues, leading to homelessness.

Structural causes of homelessness are any factors in society that make it more difficult for individuals and families to acquire a home, whether it’s private or social. These factors are largely out of the public’s control and include issues like a lack of available or suitable properties, increasing rent and mortgage costs, and reduced support from the government.

Not being able to afford a home and not having access to both financial and practical support can lead to people experiencing behavioural causes of homelessness. These are circumstances experienced by individuals that limit their chances of keeping or acquiring a property. Relationship breakdowns, substance abuse, mental health problems, and poor money management are all considered behavioural causes of homelessness.

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10 main causes of homelessness

1. Unaffordable rents

Being unable to afford rent is one of the top causes of homelessness. The average UK house price in January 2018 was £226,000, rising to £290,000 in January 2023. Such a steep increase in a relatively short amount of time has priced many people out of the market and forced them to rent. However, increased demand is also making this option increasingly unaffordable.

Average monthly rent in the UK rose by 9% in February this year, the steepest increase since records began in 2015. Additionally, landlords can end short assured tenancies after a minimum of six months because they know that they can easily find new tenants who are willing to pay more. This can often leave the original tenants without a home if they can’t find a different property that is affordable and suitable for their needs. 

The Vicar’s Relief Fund was developed to provide quick emergency funding for people on the verge of homelessness, to stop them from either being evicted or to help them access alternative accommodation.

2. Slow construction of social housing

The high cost of private properties is leading many to turn to more affordable social housing. In theory, this type of home does present an ideal alternative for people who can’t afford to buy or rent, but the reality is far bleaker. The speed at which social houses are being constructed is even slower than in the private sector, so demand heavily outweighs provision. Analysis from housing experts found that, as of March 2023, 122,000 homes for social rent were delivered over the past 11 years in England. Meanwhile, 157,000 were sold off via the Right to Buy scheme, and a further 60,000 were demolished.

Higher demand means there are not enough social homes to provide for everyone, meaning only the most vulnerable of those experiencing homelessness are given priority. This typically includes women and children, and people with disabilities or severe mental health conditions. Those who aren’t deemed a priority – usually men without families – are at greater risk of becoming homeless. Official statistics showed that, in autumn 2021,  up to 85% of England’s sleeping on the streets were men.

3. Changes to the benefits system

Another economic cause of homelessness is changes to the benefits system – primarily, the freezing of the Local Housing Allowance. Local Housing Allowance is a benefit paid to people renting from private landlords. This payment was raised at the beginning of the pandemic to cover the cheapest third of rents in a particular area but has remained frozen since then, during a period that has seen the cost of rent reach record highs. People who had all or part of their rent paid for previously are now having to find the money themselves, which can be particularly challenging if they are unemployed or earn a low income.

Likewise, the benefit cap is another barrier that prevents people from receiving the financial support they need. The cap limits how much unemployed people can claim by reducing their housing benefit. Up until April 2023, the cap had remained the same since 2016, amidst a significant rise in cost of living. While the increase was an improvement, the cap still makes it difficult for unemployed people to pay for housing and other necessities that have become increasingly unaffordable.

4. Unemployment and low income

Earning little to no income is one of the main causes of homelessness. With the cost of rent across the UK increasing by an average of 9% in 2024, people have to earn significantly higher incomes to pay for the same necessities they could afford a few years prior. This is especially difficult considering the average income hasn’t risen at a rate anywhere close to the cost of renting. 

Being unable to get a job, or working and still not being able to afford the cost of renting, are two key factors that can contribute to the behavioural causes of homelessness. People are put under huge pressure financially, which can cause strain on relationships and mental health challenges that further increase the risk of facing homelessness.

5. Lack of job security

If people are facing the prospect of unemployment and receiving no income at all then they might be forced into taking whatever work they can find. This often involves picking up jobs on zero-hour contracts, where they’re only given shifts as and when they’re available. This is particularly true amongst young people, with analysis by the Work Foundation highlighting how the number of 16–24 year olds on zero-hour contracts reached record highs in 2023. If the place of work isn’t busy then the employer might not require many staff members to be working. This means people on zero-hour contracts might not be paid for prolonged periods, placing them at greater risk of missing rent payments or not earning enough money to afford a home to begin with.

Working a zero-hour job can also be a cause of homelessness, even if the employee is receiving relatively consistent shifts and a reasonable income. Zero-hour contracts come with a lack of security and stability because there’s no guarantee that shifts won’t suddenly stop. There’s no expectation on the employer to provide a certain amount of work which means zero-hour workers often can’t prove to landlords that they earn a stable enough income to make monthly rent payments.

6. Cuts in mental health and welfare services

The support for wellbeing has also undergone detrimental changes, exacerbating some of the behavioural causes of homelessness mentioned previously. Research by The Royal College of Psychiatrists found cuts to the NHS mental health budget have contributed to nearly one in four patients having to wait over 12 weeks to start receiving mental health treatment. This is an extensive period where peoples’ conditions and living situations are allowed to worsen, driving them to a point where they might not be able to avoid or recover from homelessness.

Similarly, it can be difficult for offenders to receive vital mental health support and advice to aid their transition back into ordinary life. cuts to welfare advice in prisons often prevent people leaving prison from receiving vital mental health support that aids their transition back into ordinary life. Without this support, this group are more likely to experience the behavioural problems that make them more likely to face homelessness.

Thanks to your generous support, we’re able to provide the Frontline Fund that supports organisations throughout the UK to deliver the services that are not available elsewhere. Our Frontline Network offers essential support to those supporting people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

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7. Reductions in temporary accommodation

One of the services that St Martin-in-the-Field’s’ Charity provides is helping people find temporary accommodation to prevent them from ending up becoming homeless. This is managed via the Charity’s Vicar’s Relief Fund However, this is becoming more and more of a challenge as hostel spaces and other similar housing options become increasingly limited. Figures from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities show between January and March 2023, 104,510 households were living in temporary accommodation across England – a record high.

The strain created by this number can potentially cause homelessness for people currently living in temporary accommodation and those who might require it in the future. Many of the organisations providing temporary accommodation are charities that simply can’t afford the running costs that come with housing such a high number of people. According to a survey by Homeless Link, by January last year, a fifth of homelessness charities had already reduced their services as a consequence of cost of living pressures. This could mean that people already accessing support and accommodation are being put at increased risk of living on the streets.

For anyone unfortunate enough to be in that situation in Central London, Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, supported by St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity, offers essential support, advice, and welfare services to assist with finances, health and wellbeing, and careers.

8. Causes of homelessness for women

While the stats suggest women are less likely to sleep rough, they can face several unique challenges that can lead to homelessness which are far less common amongst other groups. Domestic abuse and the need to flee a violent partner is a primary cause of homelessness among women. Research by Refuge found that 40% of women experiencing homelessness stated domestic abuse was a contributing factor.

Additionally, statutory homelessness is particularly common among women. Factors like single-parenthood can make it very difficult for women to afford somewhere permanent for themselves and their children to live. Being unable to find and keep employment due to childcare responsibilities, as well as not having financial support from a partner, leaves many women requiring housing support just to keep a roof over their heads. This has led to women making up 60% of all people living in temporary accommodation.

9. The hostile migration environment

Over 52% of the rough sleepers in London not originally being from the UK, highlighting how they too face unique challenges that can lead to homelessness. The environment they face is particularly hostile for a number of reasons, limiting their access to basic rights like housing and employment, which can cause homelessness. People moving to the UK have to pay expensive visa fees which can leave them without enough money in other areas. Research by our partners, Praxis, found that 70% of their community members wouldn’t be able to save any money for the next year as a consequence of their visa payments.

If their immigration status is unclear, it can be difficult to find employment and gain access to public services, drastically limiting their options when looking for a home. Without employment, there’s very little opportunity to save the money needed to pay rent or purchase a home. Additionally, those trying to have their status approved may have to wait months or even years for a decision. Even once legal status has been acquired, they may continue to face difficulties acquiring social housing if they aren’t deemed a priority.

10. Causes of youth homelessness in the UK

There’s a common misconception that it’s only older people – particularly males – who experience homelessness. While they do make up a significant portion of people sleeping rough, there are several causes of youth homelessness too. Many of these are the same behavioural and structural factors that affect older people, including living in poverty, mental health conditions, and family conflict. However, young people do face unique challenges that don’t apply to other groups.

One main cause of youth homelessness is when young people leave care once they come of age.  Around 100,000 people age out of the care system every year in England, often having to make their own decisions and housing arrangements much earlier than someone who hasn’t lived in care. If they can’t access the support and advice needed to help them manage their finances, the options they’re left with are sofa surfing, squatting or even living on the streets.

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