Hostels and night shelters

There are a variety of different types and sizes of hostels run by public and private sector landlords and voluntary organisations.

This content applies to England

Direct access hostels

Direct access hostels are intended to provide easily accessible accommodation.

Most hostels are operated by small specialist housing associations or registered social landlords. Others are run by charities, voluntary organisations, churches and local authorities.

Some hostels are open 24 hours, although they may require residents to be out during the day and also have a night time curfew. Some may also have a limit to the amount of time someone can stay at the hostel.

Entry criteria and restrictions

Hostels may have entry criteria or restrictions:

  • most have entry criteria, often based on age and sex

  • many only accept referrals for bed spaces from specific agencies such as day centres and local authorities

  • some hostels only accept people with specific support needs or who have slept rough for a certain period of time

  • most do not accept asylum seekers or people from abroad who are subject to immigration control and who cannot claim benefits

  • many do not accept people with certain convictions, for example, for arson or for offences against children and young people under the age of 18

  • many do not accept people who are not entitled to housing benefit

  • many do not accept couples

  • most do not accept pets

Some hostels only take referrals from street outreach teams or other agencies working with street homeless people.

Hostels that accept direct approaches from homeless people can fill up very quickly, especially in London. It is advisable to phone as early as possible in the day to check whether there are vacancies and make a referral.

Rent and other fees

Direct access hostels are not free and can be expensive, especially hostels that provide support services, as the rent takes into account staff charges.

Many hostels provide food, usually breakfast and an evening meal, which usually need to be paid for even if the resident does not take them. In addition, many of the rooms are shared. No deposit or rent in advance is required.

A person who claims benefits or has a low income should claim housing benefit to help pay the rent; hostel staff can usually assist with any claim. Benefit claimants need only show that they are entitled to receive housing benefit once they move in. Depending on the hostel, this could be proof that they have made a claim for a qualifying benefit such as jobseekers allowance. They also require some form of personal identification. A service charge is usually added to cover things like food and laundry.

A person who is working and whose income exceeds the benefit level has to pay their own rent. A working person usually needs to have enough money to pay for at least the first two nights.

Hostels directories

Details of local hostels can be obtained from:

  • Homeless Link

  • Homeless UK

  • local authorities

  • libraries

Homeless England online directory has more information about direct access hostels in London.

Longer-term hostels

Longer-term hostels are often for specific groups of people, for example, young homeless people, students or working people.

Many longer-term hostels specify whether they take clients with low, medium or high support needs. Medium and high support hostels are suitable for clients with support needs around issues such as drug and alcohol use and mental health. Medium and high support hostels do not usually take clients with no or low support needs.

Longer-term hostels usually have waiting lists or only accept referrals from certain agencies. Advice agencies can often arrange to have referral rights. Vacancies can be infrequent, especially in London.

Long-term hostels are run by various organisations including housing associations, charities and local authorities.

Details of local hostels can be obtained from Homeless UK, the local authority, other advice centres or libraries.

Nightshelters and cold weather shelters

Night shelters provide basic accommodation and are usually restricted in their opening hours and the number of nights a person can stay. They are designed to provide easy access accommodation for people who sleep on the streets but who want somewhere for a few nights' respite.

There is usually a charge to stay in a night shelter, although if a person is entitled to housing benefit this usually covers most of the charge.

Winter shelters

During the winter months some charities, voluntary organisations and local authorities set up winter shelters. These temporary shelters are often in makeshift buildings such as old offices or schools. They normally only provide a bed and food and are open in the evenings and overnight. They are sometimes free of charge, although some require residents to pay a small charge, and others require residents to claim housing benefit.

Some shelters are open for a few weeks during the coldest months or over the Christmas period. In cities where there is a large street homeless population, other shelters are open for the full winter period (often December to March). Some winter shelters only accept referrals from contact and assessment teams or other agencies working with street homeless people. Many winter shelters become fully booked within days of opening, and may not have many vacancies arising after this.

Homeless Link has details on a number of schemes around the country.

Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP)

Every local authority should have a severe weather emergency protocol (SWEP) to assist people sleeping on the streets. Support provided as part of SWEP should be accessible to everyone and the usual exclusion criteria such as eligibility for public funds or local connection should not apply.

During periods of severe weather local authorities usually provide facilities for people sleeping rough to minimise the risk of death from exposure to adverse weather conditions.

There is no statutory definition of ‘severe weather’. It has been understood to include extreme cold, snow, rain, wind and heat. Local authorities are encouraged to be flexible about when assistance is necessary and follow the Met Office's UK weather warnings.

Severe weather guidance

Homeless Link publishes guidance for local authorities on designing and implementing appropriate SWEP support measures.

GOV.UK publishes the Adverse Weather and Health Plan.

Cold weather

Local authorities usually implement SWEP when the weather forecast indicates temperatures will fall to zero degrees Celsius or below for three or more consecutive nights. Authorities might provide rough sleepers with a bed in a shelter, food, and washing facilities.

Local authorities are encouraged to be flexible in their response and consider:

  • the 'feels like' temperature

  • forecasts approaching zero degrees

  • the impact of rain, snow, wind chill and ice

Temperatures just above freezing can be just as harmful as sub-zero degrees.

Hot weather

For some local authorities, a hot weather SWEP is triggered by a heat-health alert.

The UK Health Security Agency provides the heat-health alert service from 1 June to 15 September in partnership with the Met Office.

The alert levels are:

  • yellow: impacts expected for the most vulnerable, including rough sleepers

  • amber: impacts expected across the population

  • red: a significant risk to life even for healthy people

The Met Office has more information about the heat-health alert service. Anyone can register to receive alerts.

Local authorities might take action in a staged approach. This could include:

  • extra outreach to check on rough sleepers during a yellow alert

  • providing cool spaces and accommodation during an amber alert

GOV.UK has guidance on supporting people homeless and sleeping rough. It includes information about how organisations responsible for rough sleepers can prepare for hot weather and take action.

Covid 19 Guidance for hostels and night shelters

The guidance for hostels providing services to people experiencing homelessness and rough sleeping contains information on safety measures to minimise the risk of Covid-19 infections among residents and staff.

The guidance for night shelters contains information for night shelter managers, staff and residents.

Last updated: 22 March 2023