What causes homelessness?

Sadly, many people view homelessness as the result of personal failings, and consider that if the economy is going well, there is no excuse for not getting on.

But this belief is belied by the facts, which show that homelessness is caused by a complex interplay between a person's individual circumstances and adverse 'structural' factors outside their direct control.

These problems can build up over years until the final crisis moment when a person becomes homeless.

Personal causes of homelessness

A number of different personal and social factors can contribute towards people becoming homeless. These may include one or more of the following:

  • individual factors including drug and alcohol misuse, lack of qualifications, lack of social support, debts - especially mortgage or rent arrears, poor physical and mental health, relationship breakdown, and getting involved in crime at an early age
  • family background including family breakdown and disputes, sexual and physical abuse in childhood or adolescence, having parents with drug or alcohol problems, and previous experience of family homelessness 
  • an institutional background including having been in care, the armed forces, or in prison.

Tackling these problems is a complex business and normally requires support from public bodies, friends and family, combined with a lot of hard work from the individual or family in trouble. Public support might include intervention, advice, counselling, training or provision of alternative accommodation by a local authority where appropriate.

However, in all instances Shelter believes these problems can be best resolved when the person or family in question has a decent and secure home.

Structural causes of homelessness

Structural causes of homelessness are social and economic in nature, and are often outside the control of the individual or family concerned.
These may include:

  • unemployment
  • poverty
  • a lack of affordable housing
  • housing policies
  • the structure and administration of housing benefit
  • wider policy developments, such as the closure of long-stay psychiatric hospitals.

These problems require long-term policy solutions such as changes in the housing benefit system, the building of more affordable homes, and ensuring that a wider cross-section of society benefits from the fruits of economic growth.

Reasons given by homeless people for being homeless

The three main reasons for having lost a last settled home, given by applicants for homelessness support from local councils are:

  • parents, friends or relatives unwilling or unable to continue to accommodate them
  • relationship breakdown, including domestic violence
  • loss of an assured shorthold tenancy. [1]

However, these reasons are only the catalysts that trigger people into seeking assistance, and not the underlying issues that have caused the crisis to build up in the first place.

For many people, there's no single event that results in sudden homelessness. Instead, homelessness is due to a number of unresolved problems building up over time.

Homelessness can then recur in the future as a result of underlying problems remaining unresolved.

A study commissioned by Shelter [2] found the reasons most frequently given for being on the streets were:

  • relationship breakdown: 41 per cent
  • being asked to leave the family home: 28 per cent
  • drug and alcohol problems: 31 per cent and 28 per cent respectively
  • leaving prison: 25 per cent
  • mental health problems: 19 per cent
  • other: for example, eviction, problems with benefits payments.

On average, interviewees identified two to three factors contributing to their homelessness, which demonstrates that homelessness normally cannot be attributed to one single factor.

Research examining routes into homelessness has found that family conflict was the most common starting point for homelessness, regardless of age. [3] Family conflict in the past can also trigger homelessness in later life.

[1] Statutory homelessness statistics, CLG, 2008 

[2] Shelter, Reaching Out - a consultation with street homeless people 10 years after the launch of the Rough Sleepers Unit, p14, London, 2007.

[3] Ravenhill, M., Routes into homelessness: A study by the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion of the paths into homelessness of homeless clients of the London Borough of Camden's Homeless Persons Unit, Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, London, 2000.

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