Hidden homelessness: international evidence review

This report "Exploring Ways of Identifying and Counting Hidden Homeless Populations" presents an overview of the methods used internationally to identify or count people experiencing hidden forms of homelessness and the populations that may be likely to experience it. The report also considers the Scottish context and suggests areas where further research may be useful.

Executive summary

The term 'hidden homelessness' is often used to mean both that someone is homeless but physically hidden from public view and also to describe people who may be experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness, who meet the legal definition of homelessness and have a right to access support, but do not appear in official homelessness statistics. This report presents an overview of the methods used internationally to identify or count people experiencing hidden forms of homelessness and the populations that may be likely to experience it. Currently there is not an estimation of who might be experiencing hidden homelessness in Scotland nor a standardised way to measure it. This research aims to help bridge that gap by summarising evidence about how hidden homelessness enumeration is approached in other countries and territories. Later, it reflects on how some of these insights could be applied in Scotland.

It is worth noting that the definition of hidden homelessness used in this report has been kept as comprehensive as possible to be able to capture a broad evidence base across countries which may have differing approaches to this matter.

Sections 4, 5 and 6 of this report are directly linked to the three objectives that guided this research:

1. Explore which methodologies have proven to be more effective at identifying people experiencing housing insecurity and/or hidden homelessness, their strengths and limitations.

2. Explore which population groups experiencing housing insecurity and/or homelessness are described within the literature as being undercounted or missed by homeless counts.

3. Briefly reflect on advantages and limitations of these approaches in relation to the Scottish context.

Section 4 presents evidence on which internationally used methods have proven to be more effective at identifying people experiencing hidden homelessness. These methods have been grouped into primary research methods, secondary research methods, new and innovative methods and triangulation of multiple methods. For each method there is a section reflecting on their main challenges and exemplifying case studies are provided when possible.

Overall, there is a very wide variety of methods and strategies used internationally to identify and count people experiencing homelessness. This is closely related to each country's laws and policies on homelessness.

Methods that rely on the physical visibility of those experiencing homelessness, like night counts and capture/re-capture counts, were found to be less likely to identify those experiencing hidden homelessness. Methods that rely on service providers to count people experiencing homelessness, like community services or local authorities, benefit from longer periods of data collection to identify those that might only occasionally reach out to support services. Evidence also suggests that the wider the variety of services participating of the count the more likely it is to identify people experiencing hidden homelessness.

Finally, the use of administrative data or public records as secondary sources needs careful consideration to avoid inadvertently excluding those that might not engage with the services from which the records are pulled. That being said, one study that used health records in Scotland showed promising results on the identification of people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness (See section 4.2.1).

The evidence reviewed suggests that, because hidden homelessness is a complex and fluid phenomenon, the triangulation of methods (primary and secondary) can assist to better capture its complexity and identify those experiencing it that might otherwise be missed.

Section 5 presents, in no particular order, each of the six population groups for whom there was evidence of them experiencing hidden homelessness: women (particularly female heads of household and women who are parents); rural populations; young people; minority ethnic people; migrants, people who are seeking asylum or are refugees; and LGBTI people. Additionally, it is worth noting that the reality of hidden homelessness- as with most social topics- is intersectional and the groups used here refer to the main characteristics that might be preventing someone from being counted, but these are not mutually exclusive. This is not intended to be considered an exhaustive list of the population groups that experience hidden homelessness, nor do we know if these are the groups that experience hidden homelessness in the greatest proportions in Scotland.

The main barriers faced to enumerate each of these groups are discussed, the methods used- with their limitations and strengths- and case study examples where relevant. There were some barriers that appeared across several of the groups. One was fear of institutionalisation and discrimination which may deter some people- especially those in more vulnerable circumstances- from presenting to local authorities for help or accessing support services. This was mentioned as a barrier to enumeration for women in situations of domestic abuse, minority ethnic people, underage young people, LGBTI people and refugees/asylum seekers. Another barrier to enumeration of people experiencing homelessness was the use of definitions of homelessness that focus on the roofless aspect of homelessness in detriment of less visible circumstances like sofa-surfing, living in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation. Finally, depending on the social perception of what being homeless is, as well as its legal definition, many people might not recognise themselves as homeless or may not think they are entitled to housing support. This was mentioned in the evidence in relation to young people, LGBTI people and some minority ethnic groups.

In Section 6 the strengths and limitations of the methods presented in section 4 as well as the circumstances of the population groups presented in section 5 are reflected on in relation to the Scottish context. Overall, three strengths were identified about the way Scotland produces its homelessness statistics based on the review of international evidence:

  • the definition and overall approach to homelessness used in Scotland means that most people that find themselves homeless, or are at risk of it, can in theory approach their local authority for support
  • the geographical coverage that local authorities have across the whole Scottish territory allows for both urban and rural areas to be included in enumeration
  • a longitudinal approach to data collection allows for identification of trends and comparisons

The lessons that could be taken from the evidence in relation to the Scottish context are:

  • more research is needed to understand the reasons why some people exit the application process prematurely and/or refuse the offered temporary accommodation, and what their pathways are
  • the evidence reviewed indicated that certain population groups, often in very vulnerable circumstances, might be reluctant to approach local authorities. Further research is needed to understand who might not be approaching their local authority in Scotland
  • one of the main insights from the evidence reviewed is that one single method, no matter how robust, can seldom capture the broad spectrum of homelessness experiences

Lastly, there was very limited or no evidence on the prevalence of hidden homelessness on LGBTI people, rural populations, people seeking asylum or that are refugees in Scotland. There was some evidence on the prevalence of hidden homelessness for women and women who are parents, minority ethnic people and young people, yet still insufficient. Further research is needed to understand who is at a higher risk of experiencing hidden homelessness in Scotland.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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