Homelessness: introduction

Under the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, someone is considered homeless if they have no permanent accommodation in the UK, or if they have accommodation but cannot reasonably use it, for example because of inability to gain access, threat of violence, or overcrowding which threatens health. 

Homeless people may live in a variety of situations, including sleeping outdoors (“sleeping rough”), staying in hostels, bed and breakfast and temporary supported accommodation, staying with acquaintances (“sofa surfing”), and living in overcrowded housing.

The causes of homelessness are complex, and there is rarely one single trigger. Poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and restrictions on access to, and levels of, social security support are all factors; these often interact with individual and interpersonal vulnerabilities such as mental health problems or relationship breakdown (Fitzpatrick et al 2015).

Around 54,000 people approach their local authority for help with homelessness in Scotland each year (Scottish Government 2016). Of these, just under 35,000 make a formal application for statutory homelessness support.

The majority of people making homeless applications are single households; almost half of all applicants are single men. Over half of those applying are under 35 years old. This group has been particularly affected by recent changes to the social security system, meaning there are fewer options available when they become homeless. This is discussed in more detail on the Policy context page.

The most common reason for making a homelessness application to a local authority in Scotland is some form of relationship breakdown, with 29% of applicants in 2015-16 citing a dispute within the household and 26% having been asked to leave (Scottish Government 2016). Mental health issues are a significant underlying contributor, as are lack of support from friends and family, and drug and alcohol issues.