Tackling street homelessness

Street homeless people face many complex problems.

Street homelessness is a broader term than rough sleeping, including people who may have somewhere to sleep at night – a hostel for example – but are on the streets in the daytime.

When tackling street homelessness, a distinction needs to be made between meeting the day-to-day needs of street homeless people – for food, warmth, hygiene and somewhere to sleep, for example – and the challenge of finding lasting solutions to their problems to get them back into decent homes.


The first port of call for a homeless person to escape the street will be a hostel. Hostels are seen by many homeless people as places where their daily needs for food, warmth and hygiene can be met. Hostels can also address the loneliness many homeless people feel.

Direct access hostels operate on a first-come, first-served basis and include night shelters or emergency hostels. Other hostels may require a referral from an agency, such as a day centre or outreach team. In both cases, however, there are not normally enough places for all those people who need them.

  • Night shelters: are usually free and operate on a night-by-night basis.
  • Hostels: most charge, but then allow people to stay for longer periods. Housing benefit covers most of the cost of staying at hostels, but residents are normally asked to pay a small additional contribution for their meals.

Problems with homeless hostels

In a recent survey commissioned by Shelter [1], 77 per cent of homeless people who have stayed in hostels agreed that they are a good place to stay before moving on to longer-term accommodation. However, over half of those questioned (57 per cent) mentioned problems with other residents – such as drugs and alcohol, violence, theft, bullying, noise and arguments. Many others complained about living conditions. In particular, the lack of privacy, lack of beds, and poor facilities.

In 2005, the Government launched the Hostels Capital Improvement Programme (HCIP) with a budget of £90 million to spend over three years to upgrade hostels, train staff and develop services. Although significant progress has already been made to improve physical conditions there still needs to be a lot more improvement.

Helping homeless people to move on with their lives

Tackling street homelessness isn't just about meeting the day-to-day needs of rough sleepers. It's also about giving these people the tools and support they need to move on with their lives and find settled accommodation they can call home.

Hostels fulfil a vital function in this respect, helping homeless people to:

  • find long-term accommodation
  • go to college
  • get work
  • address their drug/alcohol use
  • resolve their family issues
  • tackle their health problems, both physical and mental
  • manage their debt problems.

However, most hostels are currently too under-resourced to adequately offer the support and encouragement residents need to move on in their lives. Instead hostel staff often have their hands full simply managing the accommodation.

There can be significant systemic obstacles to hostel residents moving on with their lives. For example, the 16-hour rule means that those studying for more than 16 hours a week are treated as full-time students, and therefore are not entitled to housing benefit in most cases. This rule makes it extremely difficult for young homeless people in hostels to access the training and education they need to get their lives back on track.

The need for more 'move on' accommodation

Move on accommodation is for people who have left the streets but are waiting to find somewhere to live long-term. At present, there is a lack of such accommodation in England, meaning that hostel beds are taken up by people waiting for permanent accommodation. This in turn means there are insufficient hostel beds for people sleeping on the streets.

In a recent survey of street homeless people commissioned by Shelter: [2]

  • 64 per cent of interviewees specifically remembered seeking help as homeless from their local authority within the last two years
  • around one third were provided with temporary accommodation
  • just under one fifth received information or advice
  • the remaining people remembered being told they were not in priority need or had no local connection, so were not eligible.

Shelter's view

People still face huge difficulties securing accommodation and accessing the help and support they need to move off the streets permanently.

Shelter calls on Government to:

  • renew its commitment to tackling street homelessness
  • urgently increase the amount of 'move-on' accommodation with adequate levels of support to allow homeless people to move into settled accommodation
  • abolish the 16-hour rule for housing benefit, so young homeless people can benefit from education and training while staying in hostels
  • end the cuts to the Supporting People programme, which funds vital support services for homeless people.

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

[2] Ibid.

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