Legal definition of homelessness
This content applies to England only.
Housing laws vary between England and Scotland. Get advice relating to Scotland
If you apply to a local council for help as homeless, the council must check whether you are legally classed as homeless or threatened with homelessness before it can decide what help you are entitled to.
Why does the legal definition of homelessness matter?
Local councils have a legal duty to help certain people if they ask a council for help when they are homeless or threatened with homelessness. The help may be with providing housing or with advice and assistance to help resolve a housing problem.
If a council decides that you are legally homeless or threatened with homelessness, it may eventually have to help you by providing you with settled accommodation. If it decides you are not homeless, you will not get the same level of help.
Who is legally classed as homeless?
You should be considered homeless if you have no home in the UK or anywhere else in the world available for you to occupy, but you don't have to be sleeping on the streets to be considered homeless.
If you apply to a local council for homelessness help, the council has to look at any accommodation you have access to. In many cases, it will be easy for a council to see that you may be homeless or likely to become homeless in the near future - for example, if:
- you are a tenant being evicted from rented accommodation or
- a home-owner being repossessed by your mortgage lender.
The council may decide you have a home if you are:
- living with friends or family who consent to you staying and haven't asked you to leave
- you have 'home rights' giving you the right to stay in your home because you are married to or in a civil partnership with the tenant or home-owner.
In many situations, if you are entitled to have a court order before you are required to leave, you won't be considered homeless until the day that bailiffs come to evict. But the council can still decide that you are 'threatened with homelessness'.
Other situations can be more complicated, and the council has to look at your situation as a whole before deciding whether you are homeless. For example, even if you have accommodation that you have a legal right to live in and no one is trying to get you out, it may not be reasonable for you to stay there. This would be the case if you are experiencing violence or abuse or harassment, or if the condition of your home is damaging your health.
Can you still be homeless if you have accommodation?
Even if you have somewhere to stay, a local council may still consider you to be homeless. Examples of situations where the council should consider you to be homeless even though you have accommodation include:
- you have no home where you can live together with your immediate family
- you can only stay where you are on a very temporary basis
- you don't have permission to live where you are
- you have been locked out of home and you aren't allowed back
- you can't live at home because of violence or abuse or threats of violence or abuse, which are likely to be carried out against you or someone else in your household
- it isn't reasonable for you to stay in your home for any reason (for example, if your home is in very poor condition)
- you can't afford to stay where you are
- you live in a vehicle or boat and you have nowhere to put it.
There may be other reasons why you should be considered homeless. Even if you don't fit into one of these categories you may be able to argue you are homeless because you can't stay where you are.
If you are not sure of your rights, get advice - use our directory to find a local adviser. In most cases, you should not leave your accommodation until the council accepts that you are homeless. If you do, the council may decide that you made yourself homeless intentionally.
Do you have no home where you and your immediate family can live together?
The council should consider you to be homeless if you can't live in your accommodation with everyone who normally lives with you. The council should also consider you to be homeless if there is someone who could be expected to live with you but who is not able to at present. This might be because, for example, the accommodation is too small or because your landlord doesn't allow children.
Is your accommodation is very temporary?
The council should consider you to be homeless if:
- you only have basic shelter or accommodation of a very temporary nature such as a hostel
- you are staying with friends or family temporarily but they can only put you up for a short time.
If you are staying in a women's refuge, in most cases you will be considered to be homeless.
You don't have a legal right to live in your accommodation
If you don't have permission to live in the accommodation you are living in (for example because you are squatting) the council should consider you to be homeless.
You can't get into your accommodation
The council should consider you to be homeless if you are unable to get into your accommodation. This could be because your landlord or someone you live with has changed the locks and will not let you back in. If your landord has changed the locks it may be an illegal eviction and the council may be able to help you in other ways.
Is there a risk of violence in your home?
It is not reasonable to be expected to stay somewhere if you are experiencing violence or threats which are likely to be carried out against anyone in your household. This includes domestic abuse or violence from people outside your home. If you are in this situation, the council should consider you to be homeless. You will be asked to provide details and dates of any violent incidents. You don't have to press charges against the violent person or provide police reports, but any evidence you can provide will be helpful.
Is your accommodation in very poor condition
If your home is of a much poorer standard than most other housing in the area, the council may consider you to be homeless because it is not reasonable for you to stay there. However, your accommodation would have to be in a very poor state of disrepair (for example, so bad that it is damaging your health) for this to be the case.
You can't afford to stay where you are
The council should consider you to be homeless because it is not reasonable for you to live in your accommodation if you can't afford to keep living there without depriving yourself of basic essentials such as food or heating. This also applies if you haven't got enough money to be able to return to accommodation that is still available for you. However, in this situation the council may offer to pay for you to return rather than provide you with accommodation itself.
There's nowhere to put your houseboat or caravan
The council should consider you to be homeless if you live in a moveable structure such as a houseboat or caravan, and there is no place where you are allowed to keep it or live in it.
Are you classed as threatened with homelessness?
The council should consider you to be threatened with homelessness if you are likely to become homeless within 28 days. For example, this applies if your landlord gets a court order to evict you and you have to leave within 28 days.
In situations like this, the council should give you advice about whether you have a right to stay where you are. It may be able to help you to stay in your current home by helping you to negotiate with your landlord.
If it is unlikely that you can stop your landlord from evicting you, the council has a duty to help you as if you were already homeless. It should not wait until you are evicted before looking into your situation.
What can you do if the council decides you are not homeless?
If the council decides that you're not homeless or threatened with homelessness, it has to inform you in writing. The decision letter must explain the reasons why the council has come to that decision. It must also inform you that you have a right to request a review of the decision within 21 days.
If you are not homeless or threatened with homelessness, the council only has to give you advice and assistance about finding somewhere else to live. If you are already in emergency accommodation provided by the council, you will probably be asked to leave.
If you think the council's decision is wrong, contact a local advice centre that is independent of the council as soon as you can. Use our directory to find one. If you want the council to review its decision, you have to ask it to do so within 21 days of receiving the decision letter.
An adviser may be able to:
- look into the reasons for the decision and help you work out whether you have a good chance of getting the council to change its decision
- help you put together the information you will need to provide for the review
- convince the council to provide accommodation until the review is completed
- help you to appeal further if the council still refuses to help you
- help you find other emergency accommodation if the council will not accept that you are homeless.