Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg - The Hidden Homelessness Crisis

  • 31 May 2019

For many people the common misconception persists that homelessness is all about 'rough sleeping' and little else. However, recent findings of an investigation into hidden homelessness in London (1) reveals that thirteen times more people are termed hidden homeless compared with those sleeping rough. It's an issue that often stays hidden from public awareness - the invisible iceberg threatening the most vulnerable in society, in particular young people.

A Better Definition

As a starting point, it is important to explain what we mean by hidden homelessness. A recent article by the BBC provides a working definition – “Hidden homeless are people without a place to call home, but who are hidden from official statistics and not receiving government support” (2). This includes people who are rough sleeping, sofa surfing, squatting, living in hostels and other forms of temporary accommodation, such as those forced to sleep in cars, tents and night shelters.

In this article we examine the findings of a recent investigation by the London Assembly Housing Committee into hidden homelessness in London. We also look at other research findings, focusing on young people aged 16-25 years.

The Size of the Problem

The research into the situation in London reveals stark findings:

  • Around 1 in 10 people in London will experience hidden homelessness in any one year.
  • On any single night in London, the report estimates that a minimum of 12,500 people are hidden homeless.
  • Thirteen times more people are termed hidden homeless compared with those sleeping rough.

For young people aged 16-25, life in London is especially challenging:

  • 225,000 young people have stayed in an insecure or unsafe place because they had nowhere safe to call home.
  • One in five of 16 to 25 year olds sofa surfed in 2014. Of these, roughly half sofa surfed for more than a month.

Additional UK-wide research by the BBC (3) looked at the problem of sofa surfing and reveals some disturbing findings:

  • 41% of young people have stayed with friends on floors or sofas for at least one night (excluding following a night-out or due to travel difficulties).
  • Just over 9% did so for over a month.
  • Young men are more likely to have sofa-surfed than young women - 48% of the 484 men questioned said they had, compared with 34% of 519 women.


"When I was 14, my mum was evicted because of rent problems due to her addiction. For the next two years I was moving from place to place; I was staying with family members and family friends. Eventually I ended up living with my grandmother. Unfortunately, it didn't work out between us and I had to leave. Until that point I had lived in six different places in two years.”

Why do People Sofa Surf?

Looking at the most common reasons why people resort to a friend's sofa, the same BBC article (3) identified the following reasons – parents being unable or unwilling to provide housing, extended family being unable to help, splitting from a partner, followed by tenancies ending, domestic abuse, rent arrears and leaving care. Additional research (4) by Centrepoint identifies that “parents or others asking them to leave” is the main reason why young people become homeless.

Sofa surfing is a not an uncommon experience for young people in housing difficulties.However, it is important to reject the unfounded idea that there is anything enjoyable or easy about sofa-surfing.As the person outstays their welcome, it can lead to becoming exposed to dangers. Many young people become trapped in a vicious cycle as they face issues compounded by their lack of a permanent home address – challenges such as gaining employment, maintaining or entering education or training, mental health issues and addiction problems, as well as numerous other hurdles that the majority of us do not have to face.

Returning to the London survey, the findings reveal that family and relationship breakdown are the largest causes of hidden homelessness among young people. For young LGBT people, who make up one quarter of youth homelessness, this is particularly the case. Two thirds of LGBT homeless youth reported parental rejection as one of the top three reasons for their homelessness. According to the findings of the investigation, this issue is particularly prevalent among the transgender community.

Lack of Support

Current legislation ensures that very vulnerable people – such as care leavers, under-18s, those with children, and men and women fleeing domestic violence – are prioritised for support (5). However, many people experiencing homelessness do not fall into the above categories and are often ineligible for homelessness support.


“Due to a family breakdown I had to leave home when I was 16. I went to stay with my friend and then applied to social services to go into foster care. But they told me I was too old, that I was an adult. I found that astonishing – how you can support yourself at 16, I don't know.”

To compound the problem, the London survey found that most people who experience hidden homelessness have not sought advice or support about their homelessness from local authorities or support services. The London investigation reveals three main reasons for this:

  • People who are homeless know little about advice services and how they work.
  • They don't expect advice services to be able to help them.
  • They, or people they know, have had negative experiences of support services in the past.

For young people, the picture is even more stark:

  • Only one in five of young people approach a local authority about their homelessness.
  • A fifth of those who do present are turned away without any practical assistance.

The London survey (and other research) paints a bleak picture of being homeless in London. Undoubtedly, current legislation fails to support the majority of homeless people, the main reason being that only a small proportion may be entitled to support. Moreover, while the law does not actually preclude support being given to people outside these categories, the reality may be that there is simply not enough money left in the system for local authorities to go much beyond their legal duties.

Many people who are classified as hidden homeless could qualify for support, particularly under the Homelessness Reduction Act which went into law last year (5). However, as the London survey reveals, too often young people do not know where to go for help and if they do, it can sometimes be a wasted journey.

Universal Credit – System in Crisis?

A report published in October 2018 by the Commons Select Committee (6) concluded that “The introduction of Universal Credit is causing unacceptable hardship and difficulties for many of the claimants it was designed to help”.

The findings certainly made the news. The Guardian (7) reported that Universal Credit is a significant contributor to hidden homelessness. The article identified two factors. Firstly, “To make and manage your claim, it is necessary to have reasonable computer literacy and access to IT and this is a barrier for many of our service users”. Secondly, “Around 80% of people moved on to Universal Credit are in arrears before receiving the payment, which takes up to eight weeks to come through. What this means in practice is that some people can't pay their rent and lose accommodation and they stay homeless for longer because they are seen as risky by landlords”.

There is no doubt that Universal Credit is a support system in crisis with delayed payment putting housing beyond the means of many young people. A number of not-for-profit organisations have challenged the government by campaigning that Universal Credit in its current form is not functioning for people who are homeless, or at risk of being homeless.

“Whilst Universal Credit is well intentioned, in practice it proves difficult for vulnerable people to access their awarded payments,” says Debbie Moreton, Head of Young People's Services at Step by Step. “Delays in payments have contributed to the growing crisis of homelessness, rent debt and financial difficulties. We are campaigning for reform alongside other leading charities.”

A Way Forward?

Clearly not-for-profit organisations have a considerable role in helping some of the most vulnerable people in society. Indeed, it can be said that the 'support gap' is often left to the charity sector to fill. Step by Step is one such organisation.

“Hidden homelessness is a growing issue that particularly affects young people,” says Ben Harman, CEO of Step by Step. “It does not have the visibility of street homelessness and therefore does not attract the publicity and support that a problem of such magnitude should be garnering. It is often left to the charity sector to address this shortfall.”

A governmental communications strategy to raise the profile of hidden homelessness and the support available would undoubtedly help – Including advertising in public places, social media campaigns, encouraging access to helplines, as well as promotion of existing support both at the local authority level and via the not-for-profit sector.

Public awareness is key to ensuring that hidden homelessness does not remain the social issue iceberg lurking below the surface.