More than 300,000 people are homeless in England and Wales according to a new report by the housing and homelessness charity, Shelter.

In the most extensive review of its kind, Shelter say the number of homeless people have increased by 13,000 in the last year.

Their study combined official rough-sleeping figures with single people in hostels, those owed a statutory homeless duty by a local authority and also households being accommodated by social services.

However, according to the charity, this is likely to be a conservative estimate on the basis that government figures are not definitive. These figures also do not take into consideration the ‘hidden homeless’ – those who do not approach the local authority as homeless but sleep on friends’ floors and sofas.

The increase in the number of people becoming homeless is particularly acute in some areas of the country, with perhaps unsurprisingly London bearing the brunt of the crisis. The study found homelessness most serious in the borough of Newham, where one in 25 people are homeless.

This was followed by the London boroughs of Haringey (1 in 29), Westminster (1 in 31) and Enfield (1 in 33). Although London has the highest proportion of homelessness, the study found there were pressure zones in other major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol.

Why the increase in the number of homeless?

The report found that the single leading cause of homelessness is the loss of a tenancy in the private rented sector, with three in ten homeless applicants seeking statutory assistance for this reason. Cuts in housing benefit were cited as one of the main reasons for the loss of such tenancies.

The National Audit Office (NAO) recently completed a study on homelessness which found that “changes to the Local Housing Allowance are likely to have contributed to the affordability of tenancies for those on benefits, and are an element of the increase in homelessness”.

Local Housing Allowance (LHA) was introduced in April 2008 to provide housing benefit entitlement for tenants renting in private sector accommodation. It is the method used to calculate and assess housing benefit claims but there are now more stringent limits set on the amount of LHA that each tenant can be paid by the local authority.

In addition, the benefit cap (the limit on the total amount of benefit a person can receive) may further reduce the amount of housing benefit a tenant receives. This in practise means that tenants may receive less than the LHA rate. This is particularly likely to hit families with young children who are in receipt of several benefits.

Any shortfall between the full rent and housing benefit paid must then be met by the tenant. However, if the tenant cannot afford to pay the shortfall, this will usually lead to rent arrears and the landlord can then take steps to evict the tenant who subsequently becomes homeless.

The Shelter report also found that a lack of affordable homes, particularly in major cities, had increased the number applying to the local authority as homeless.

What needs to change?

In April 2018, The Homelessness Reduction Act (2017) in England will be introduced. This is a major shake-up of the homelessness legislation with the aim of trying to ensure that many more people have a right to local authority assistance to help relieve or prevent their homelessness.

The main aim of the changes will be to prevent homelessness ever occurring by shifting the focus for assistance to the period when a person is threatened with homelessness. This attempts to pre-empt the situation, and divert potential applications for those seeking housing assistance by securing accommodation for them elsewhere.

The new legislation will provide an opportunity to try to reduce the number of homeless people, but it will need to be combined with strategic efforts to tackle the root cause of the problem.

Our briefings in the New Year will look at the main provisions of The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and how successful it is likely to be once implemented in practice.