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Homeless in a pandemic: 253,000 people are trapped in temporary accommodation

Posted 17 Dec 2020

Shelter investigation exposes daily struggle of life without a secure home

Shelter’s new report reveals 253,000 people in England are homeless and living in temporary accommodation during the pandemic – the highest figure for 14 years. 

Rising homelessness is already a major problem – with the latest figures showing 115,000 more people are homeless and trapped in temporary accommodation than a decade ago – but Shelter argues the economic chaos caused by Covid-19 risks turbo-charging the crisis. The charity’s analysis of government data shows the number of people in temporary accommodation jumped by 6,000 in the first three months after the pandemic struck. 

However, the number of people experiencing homelessness is undoubtedly higher, as many people will be undocumented by councils because they are sleeping rough or sofa-surfing. 

Shelter’s Homeless and Forgotten report examines the lives blighted by the housing emergency and lack of social homes, which is leaving thousands stuck in unstable temporary accommodation with nowhere else to go. Temporary accommodation provided by councils can range from a self-contained flat to an emergency B&B room with shared facilities. One in six homeless households (17%) are currently placed into emergency B&Bs and hostels, where poor conditions and gross overcrowding are rife. The use of emergency B&Bs alone has increased by a staggering 371% over the last ten years. 

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “Over a quarter of a million people – half of them children – are homeless and stuck in temporary accommodation. This should shame us all. With this deadly virus on the loose, 2020 has taught us the value of a safe home like never before. But too many are going without, because of the chronic lack of social homes.  

“Many people will spend Christmas in grim, dangerous places, cut off from loved ones and faced with a daily struggle to eat or keep clean. As the country continues to reel from the financial shockwaves caused by the pandemic, our services will do all they can to support those battling homelessness. This year has been unbelievably tough, but with the public’s generous support we will do our best to give hope and help to everyone who needs us.”  

To expose the harsh reality of life without a secure home, Shelter conducted 21 in-depth interviews with homeless families and individuals trapped in temporary accommodation during the pandemic. The key themes which emerged from the investigation were:  

  • Feelings of isolation: over half the people interviewed were placed in temporary accommodation out of area, away from jobs, schools and support networks. Several people spoke about feeling lonely, abandoned and forgotten.  

  • Not being able to stay safe: nearly everyone living in shared accommodation said it was impossible to maintain social distancing. Three people reported sharing basic facilities with people clearly displaying Covid-19 symptoms, resulting in intense fear. 

  • Struggling to eat properly: over a third of those interviewed said they struggled to prepare food and eat properly during lockdown because of inadequate cooking facilities, with some reporting losing weight or suffering health problems as a result.  

  • Difficulties keeping clean: many people found it difficult to wash themselves and do laundry due to unhygienic or inadequate washing facilities. A situation made worse as launderettes and public buildings closed because of the lockdown measures. 

  • Impact on mental wellbeing: 20 out of 21 people said their own, or their partner’s, mental health had been negatively affected by living in temporary accommodation. 

In response to its alarming findings, Shelter is urging the public to support its frontline advisers as they work tirelessly to help growing numbers of people to find, or keep hold of, a home.  

One of the people Shelter interviewed was Jenny, who was placed in temporary accommodation in South West London with her two young children (aged 1 and 3). The tiny, self-contained flat is in extremely poor condition. 

Jenny said:“It’s a complete nightmare. We don’t feel safe, it’s always noisy, you don’t know who you’re living next to. The police are always around – someone tried to break down our door once, which was terrifying. It’s so difficult to do simple things like your laundry.”   

“The kids sleep on the sofa. There’s barely any space for them to eat – let alone play. I can’t let them play in the garden because there are needles and broken glass. Being so far from Jack's nursery and having to wake up at 5am to get there makes things much harder. This is no place to bring up a family. I worry constantly about what impact this is having on them.” 

Another person interviewed was Far, who was moved out of his local area to a hostel in Harrow. He has lived alone in his cramped room for a year, which has left him feeling isolated and anxious. Far said: “Living here in these conditions has really taken its toll. The place is filthy. We have one bathroom for 20 people, but it’s not clean enough to use half the time. There’s never toilet tissue or soap. When coronavirus arrived, it was so stressful worrying about keeping clean and safe living in a place like this.  

“There were residents walking around who thought they had coronavirus and didn’t wear a mask. Because I’m living in shared accommodation during the pandemic, I wait until the middle of the night to make food, when the kitchen is empty and not full of people – usually five people try to cook at once. So, I no longer cook hot meals as social distancing is impossible. I mainly eat basic things in my room. I feel like I’ve been exiled, and nobody seems to care.” 

The report also revealed which parts of the country have the highest number of homeless people trapped in temporary accommodation: 

  • More than two-thirds (68%) of all homeless people living in temporary accommodation are in London – this equates to 1 every 52 people in the capital. 

  • In London, Newham has the highest rates of people in temporary accommodation (1 in 23), followed by Haringey (1 in 28), and Kensington and Chelsea (1 in 29). 

  • Outside of the capital, Luton has the highest rate of people in temporary accommodation (1 in 55). This is followed by Brighton and Hove (1 in 78), Manchester (1 in 93) and Birmingham (1 in 94).  

To donate to Shelter’s urgent winter appeal and give hope to people facing homelessness, please visit Just £10 could answer a call to Shelter’s national emergency helpline, allowing a trained adviser to give expert advice and support. 


Notes to editors:

Analysis of MHCLG’s homelessness statistics: 

  • At the end of June 2020 there were an estimated 253,620 homeless people living in temporary accommodation in England. This is the highest it’s been since 2006 Q2 when there was an estimated 254,420 homeless people living in temporary accommodation.  

  • Since 2020 Q1 (March 2020), the number of homeless people living in temporary accommodation has increased by 2% (an additional 5,910 homeless people). Since 2010 Q2 (June 2010), the number of homeless people living in temporary accommodation has increased by 83% (an additional 115,040 homeless people).  

  • The estimated number of homeless people living in temporary accommodation is the number of people (adults plus children) who live in households that have been found to be homeless and are living in council-arranged temporary accommodation. The number of adults living in temporary accommodation is calculated using the detailed household type information and added to figures for the number of children in temporary accommodation. ‘Other’ household types are assumed to contain an average of two people.  

  • The detailed household type data for households living in temporary accommodation is available here: MHCLG, Live tables on homelessness, Statutory homelessness live tables, Table TA2.  

  • The number of children living in temporary accommodation is available here: MHCLG, Live tables on homelessness, Statutory homelessness live tables, Table TA1. 

  • Local authority data is from 2020 Q2 where possible. If this is not available, the most recent available quarter in the last year is used. Local authority data is available here: MHCLG, Live tables on homelessness, Statutory homelessness live tables, Detailed local authority tables, Table TA1 and TA2. 

  • We compared the estimated number of homeless people living in temporary accommodation with the total number of people in the population in each area to calculate the rates of homeless people living in temporary accommodation in each area. The population data is available here: ONS, Estimates of the population for the UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, Mid-2019: April 2020 local authority district codes edition of this dataset, Table MYE2. 

  • Data on the type of TA that homeless households are living in is available here: MHCLG, Live tables on homelessness, Statutory homelessness live tables, Table TA1. 

  • We looked at a ten-year increase in different types of TA by comparing data from 2020 Q2 with 2010 Q2. The number of households living in B&Bs has increased from 2,410 households at the end of June 2010 to 11,360 households at the end of June 2020.  

Qualitative investigation:

  • Shelter conducted telephone interviews with 21 people living in temporary accommodation this year (2020). The questionnaire included a mix of close ended and open-ended questions, allowing us to see trends, and allowing people to set out their thoughts and experiences in their own words.  

  • We asked people to describe their accommodation, talk about life during lockdown and to talk about the impact that living in temporary accommodation has had on them and, where appropriate, their children. 

About Shelter: Shelter is the UK’s leading housing and homelessness charity and believes that everyone should have a safe home. It helps millions of people every year struggling with bad housing and homelessness through its free emergency helpline, webchat service, and local advice, support and legal services. And it campaigns to make sure that one day no one will have to turn to Shelter for help. For free and expert housing advice visit: