Shelter issues winter warning as someone calls its emergency helpline every minute

Posted 01 Dec 2020

Families cutting back on food for themselves in a desperate bid to pay their rent 

Shelter’s emergency helpline has been flooded with calls from almost 25,000 people in England in the last two months, with a new person calling every minute.

New data reveals that, since the pandemic disruptions began in March, more than 90,000 people have called the charity’s free national helpline, which is part-funded by M&S. Shelter’s team of frontline advisers are warning of a deeply difficult winter ahead, as even more people face homelessness and hardship after losing income or jobs.

In a worrying sign of the times, one in three people calling Shelter for help are families with children, with more than 31,000 families calling since March. Of the families who’ve reached out for help during the pandemic: 

  • 65% were already homeless or at risk of homelessness.  

  • 19% needed urgent help to find temporary homeless accommodation. 

  • 18% needed help to try and keep hold of their current home.

Andrea Deakin, Helpline Manager at Shelter, said: “2020 has been an incredibly tough year. I think myself so lucky to have a safe home when I know just how many families are living through this pandemic without one. Our emergency helpline is open 365 days a year because we don’t want anyone to face homelessness alone. But as more people turn to us, we urgently need the public’s support to keep answering their calls. Buying a festive M&S sandwich could make all the difference to a family whose home is on the line.” 

The charity’s frontline services data mirrors the results from its Covid monitor, run by YouGov. This shows 1.4 million families (21%) in England are worried they will become homeless as a result of the pandemic. More than 780,000 (14%) have already gone to the extreme of cutting back on food for themselves in a desperate bid to pay their rent or mortgage.  

To ensure it can keep up with the demand for its services this winter and beyond, Shelter is urging the public to buy a festive lunch from M&S. 

M&S food ambassador and TV presenter Emma Willis is supporting Shelter this year. She said: “I’m so grateful that I was able to stay safe in my home with my kids throughout this unpredictable year. But not all families have had that luxury – and the chaos of the pandemic means that more people are facing homelessness for the first time. Over a million families in England are worried they’ll become homeless as a result. So, pick up an M&S sandwich – and help Shelter pick up the phone for the families who need them.” 

The vital funds raised for Shelter through M&S’s festive lunch range will make a real difference to struggling families across the country – like Matt and Heidi. The family from Lincolnshire battled homelessness after they were evicted from their rented home just after Christmas last year. Matt, Heidi and their two children are currently living in a private rental, but it’s in a state of disrepair and they hope to find a safe and permanent home in the future.  

Matt said: “We’ve had homelessness hanging over us, potential redundancy, our kids’ schooling disrupted, and Covid thrown into the mix. We spent months sofa-surfing and were staying with Heidi’s parents when the UK first went into lockdown in March. But with her stepdad vulnerable after having a quadruple heart bypass, we felt like we had to go. 

“We've got quite a big tent stored at Heidi's parent’s house, and there were even a few times I was looking at it and thinking, we're going to end up living in that. When things had gotten so bad, it was good to have Shelter’s support – especially when I don't know where else we would have found help. They’ve really been there for us. I would say Shelter's been a lifeline.” 

Chris Seaby, Head of Product Development for the M&S festive lunch range, said: “The M&S and Shelter partnership has been helping to keep people safe in their homes for 15 years. During that time, we have proudly supported hundreds of thousands of people and families facing homelessness. We fully support Shelter’s belief that nobody should face homelessness alone – and are proud that buying something tasty from our festive lunch range is a simple way to make a big difference. This year, as more people have turned to the Helpline, we must do all we can to help those who need Shelter’s support.” 


Notes to editors:

About Shelter  

Shelter helps millions of people every year struggling with bad housing or homelessness through our advice, support and legal services. We campaign to make sure that, one day, no one will have to turn to us for help. To support Shelter's emergency helpline this winter, visit And for free, expert housing advice, visit:     

Shelter’s National Emergency Helpline stats: 

  • All figures relate to data collected by Shelter’s National Helpline in England. 

  • “The last two months” relates to people who have called the helpline between 23/09/2020 – 23/11/2020 inclusive (the number of callers during this period was 24,950). “Since the pandemic started” relates to people who called the helpline between 23/03/2020 – 23/11/2020 inclusive (the number of callers during this period was 90,214). 

  • The number of people calling per minute is based on the helpline’s opening hours of 8am-8pm Monday to Friday and 9pm to 5pm Saturday-Sunday. Calls from duplicate numbers have only been counted once to allow us to estimate number of callers rather than number of calls. 

  • “Families” is defined as callers who have dependents/ children and includes people who are pregnant but do not already have dependents/children. 31,625 families have called the helpline between 23/03/2020 – 21/11/2020. 

  • The percentage of people ‘homeless or at risk of homelessness’ includes all categories where the person indicated there was some risk of homelessness even if that wasn’t in the next 56 days. (Full breakdown: Already Homeless 27%, Homeless from tonight or within next 56 days 16%, Risk of homeless but not in next 56 days 22%) 

Shelter’s Covid Monitor:  

The Covid monitor is carried out by YouGov. The tables below show the results for England. The notes at the foot of Table 1 provide full details on the methodology and fieldwork dates. 

COVID-19/ the current economic situation has made me more worried about becoming homeless: Strongly agree or tend to agree

With dependent children in home for England
Unweighted base: 4,738
Weighted base: 4,862

Source: Survey results are from 5 waves of the Shelter & YouGov Covid monitor, online, 18+, weighted to be representative of GB public, fieldwork dates for the five waves in Autumn 2020 were: 28/08-02/09; 14-16/09; 28-30/09; 12-14/10; 26-28/10.  

Which, if any, of the following have you sacrificed/ done in order to enable you to keep up with any rental or mortgage payments in the last month: cut back on food for me or my partner and/ OR skipped meals

With dependent children in home and pays rent or mortgage in England
Unweighted base: 3,872
Weighted base: 3,923
% 14%

Source: See table 1 above. This question was not asked of those that own their own home outright or live rent free with friends or family.