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.

6. How does the evidence relate to the Scottish context?

6.1 Insights from international methods for identifying hidden homelessness

This section reflects on Scotland's approach to producing a homeless count inclusive of people in concealed forms of homelessness based on the evidence on enumeration methods used internationally. Because most of the evidence reviewed for this report was collected from other countries some of its conclusions will not be fully applicable to Scotland. However, understanding how others approach homelessness counts that are inclusive of populations that are experiencing forms of hidden homelessness provides a starting point to reflect on what can be learned to strengthen Scotland's overall approach to producing homelessness counts.

Strengths of Scotland's approach to homelessness counts:

The definition and understanding of homelessness

The framework of rights for people who experience homelessness in Scotland means that most people that find themselves homeless, or are at risk of it, can approach their local authority for support. When a household presents to local authorities for homelessness support, statistical data is collected from homelessness applications. One of the strengths of producing a homelessness count using data collected routinely by local authorities at the point of applying is that it has the potential to include people experiencing multiple kinds of homelessness regardless of them being ultimately deemed intentionally or unintentionally homeless.

This framework of rights for people experiencing homelessness used in Scotland encompasses multiple circumstances that in the evidence drawn from other countries was sometimes considered as hidden homelessness. These circumstances range from living in overcrowded accommodation; being at risk of eviction; staying in accommodation unsuitable for human habitation or staying with friends and family in a non-permanent basis. Here in Scotland, although people in these circumstances might be in hidden homelessness, they could approach their council for support. That is the main objective guiding this review, to understand how to best identify people who are entitled to support but are not currently getting it.

Geographical reach

Another strength of this approach is the geographical coverage that local authorities have across the whole Scottish territory allowing for both urban and rural areas to be included in the count.

Ability to identify trends and allow comparisons across time

Through this method of employing routine service-level data, primary data is collected continuously which allows to identify trends over time. This helps keep consistency by using the same data collection tools across the territory and across time, also allowing comparisons.

Longitudinal data collection

The use of a unique identifier and the way data is collected in multiple points of an applicant's journey through the system (PREVENT1, HL1, HL2 and HL3 data returns) allows for the following of a household's journeys through the system and can identify repeat applications.

Based on the evidence reviewed there are a number of lessons applicable to the Scottish context:

Counting people who exit the application process prematurely

Although people who exit the application process before getting temporary or settled accommodation would be initially included in the count, there is still work to be done to understand the reasons behind households who exit the process before accessing the requested support. We know that households can chose to refuse the offer of temporary accommodation by a local authority. There were 3,385 refusals of temporary accommodation between April and September 2022 from unintentionally homeless households (The Scottish Government, 2022c). More research is needed to understand the reasons behind each of these refusals and map their pathways in and out of homelessness.

Counting people who do not approach their local authority

The evidence reviewed for this report suggests that people in vulnerable situations might be reluctant to approach their local authority for multiple reasons such as: fear of discrimination; because they do not see themselves as homeless; because are not aware of the services' existence or their eligibility to get support from them. Although there are some indirect estimations of the number of those not included in homeless counts, as discussed previously in this report, the extent of this issue is not known for Scotland. Further research is needed to understand who might not be approaching their local authority in Scotland and why.

One size does not fit all

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. This was at least partially resolved in countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway by combining more than one form of data collection. In these countries a mix of longitudinal and cross-sectional methods are used. The combination of methods selected can vary according to the known characteristics of the area's population or any targeted group.

There is evidence that suggests that a count conducted through services other than those providing homelessness support can better reach people experiencing hidden forms of homelessness who might not approach their local authority (Benjaminsen et al., 2020; Kauppi et al., 2020). Any of these methods will require tailoring to the community where it is used and the known characteristics of its population. Overall, evidence suggests that triangulating and using multiple methods reduces the risks of bias and increases the potential to identify and count those experiencing hidden homelessness.

6.2 Insights about hidden homeless populations in Scotland

The evidence focussed on six population groups that may be at risk of experiencing hidden forms of homelessness in different countries, including Scotland (Husbands, 2018). Specific barriers were identified to the inclusion of each of this groups in homelessness counts. These barriers are linked to the way homelessness is understood, the methods used to produce homelessness counts and wider societal perceptions of those experiencing homelessness.

Of those barriers, some do not apply to Scotland due to Scotland's adoption of a broader framework of rights for people experiencing homelessness which is less restrictive than some of the countries where the research reviewed here was conducted. In other cases, the methodological critiques do not apply to the methods currently used here in Scotland to produce homeless counts. However, to improve on the current data landscape, there are valuable insights and lessons to be learned from their approaches to identify and count populations who, based also on the evidence reviewed for this report, may be at risk of being undercounted in homelessness statistics.

Households led by women, women who are parents and minority ethnic women

Overall, the evidence reviewed for this report highlighted the need of an intersectional and gendered lens on homelessness. There are multiple factors some studies suggest could be contributing to an undercount of women experiencing homelessness, but there is not sufficient evidence to understand if and how this applies to Scotland.

The evidence suggests that women often exhaust informal housing arrangements, like staying with friends and family, before turning to local authorities for support (Bretherton & Pleace, 2018; Engender, 2020a). Additional insights would be needed to understand if this factor is contributing to the sustained trend where there were more male homelessness applicants. For example – in the first half of 2022/23 financial year there were 54% male applicants compared to 46% female (The Scottish Government, 2022c).

Separation of mothers from their dependent children was another emerging thread across international literature. We know that in 2022 in Scotland 17% single parent households experiencing homelessness were led by a female compared to 5% led by male single parents (The Scottish Government, 2022c). It is unclear if there are women who are parents and are not presenting as such in homelessness statistics.

Across the literature domestic abuse was presented as a circumstance that leads to a loss of accommodation when women exit the abusive relationship and, therefore, they are more likely to experience homelessness because of it. There is evidence linking women's experiences of homelessness and gender-based violence in Scotland (The Scottish Government, 2010). As mentioned previously, in the 2021/22 homelessness statistics it was reported that 14% of households selected 'dispute within household abusive or violent' as their main reason for making a homeless application (The Scottish Government, 2022b). This makes it the third most common reason given for a homeless application. Out of a total of 4,820 households that selected this reason for having to leave their accommodation, 3,745 (77.7%) were led by women (The Scottish Government, 2022a).

Lastly, relationship breakdown linked to domestic abuse also emerged as a common theme in research on minority ethnic and immigrant women's homelessness in Scotland (Netto, 2006; Netto et al., 2004). In these cases, the loss of a home often comes with the loss of their community and informal support networks. Out of the 4,820 households selected 'dispute within household abusive or violent' as their main reason for making a homeless application, 535 were led by someone from a minority ethnic (including White Polish) and 260 refused to provide their ethnicity, but it is unclear how many of them are female (The Scottish Government, 2022a). Based on these insights we need to further our understanding of women's hidden homelessness prevalence in Scotland.

Minority ethnic people

Evidence suggests that minority ethnic groups are more likely to experience homelessness in Scotland (Bramley et al., 2022; Husbands, 2018; Netto, 2006; Netto et al., 2004; The Scottish Government, 2021). It was reported in Scotland's 2021/22 homelessness statistics that 9% main applicants were non-White[1], yet the 2011 census shows that only 4% of the total population of Scotland was from a minority ethnic background (The Scottish Government, 2015, 2022a). Although these figures might not be directly comparable, this still signals a likely overrepresentation of minority ethnic people among those experiencing homelessness in Scotland.

Gypsy/Travellers were one of the minority ethnic groups linked in the evidence to hidden homelessness, specifically to living in overcrowded accommodation. In previous reports, based on the analysis of the 2011 census, Gypsy/Traveller households were found to be more than twice as likely to be living in overcrowded accommodation (24% of Gypsy/Traveller households were overcrowded compared to 9% of all households) (The Scottish Government, 2015). In October 2019, the Scottish Government and The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) published a joint plan on Improving the lives of Gypsy/Travellers Action Plan which includes a commitment to provide more and better Gypsy/Traveller accommodation. Work to progress this includes the £20m Gypsy/Traveller Accommodation Fund to develop modern sites, gather learning and build skills in site development among Local Authorities. A lack of evidenced need is a key issue in increasing accommodation provision. The Scottish Government plans to commission research to make it easier for local authorities to identify and plan for unmet Gypsy/Traveller accommodation needs, including developing a toolkit to support inclusion of Gypsy/Traveller accommodation needs in routine data collection.

The Housing needs of minority ethnic groups: evidence review conducted by the Scottish Government in 2020 found that lack of visibility, accessibility and appropriateness of mainstream support services were barriers to some minority ethnic groups accessing housing support services. Another report on housing of ethnic minorities in Scotland also noted that racism among housing staff could be a potential barrier to the accessibility of services (Netto, 2006). Further research is needed to understand how local authorities are responding to the needs of minority ethnic groups and if this is linked to hidden homelessness for this population.

Migrants, people seeking asylum or that are refugees

Because refugee status is not specifically considered to be a protected characteristic in the UK there is often not a necessity to record it as part of equalities data for homeless applications. That makes it difficult to collect information on homelessness among people are seeking asylum or have been granted refugee status. In addition, language barriers and not having recourse to funds also appeared in the literature as the main barriers to access homelessness support, and therefore, counted (The Scottish Government, 2021). This last two points are also true for people who find themselves in an irregular migration situation.

In the evidence multiple barriers to access services were identified like language, fear of criminalisation, navigating a new and unknown system and not having recourse to funds. These should be considered, especially when designing data collection methods so that use services as a point of contact.

LGBTI people

There is a gap in relation to LGBTI people's homelessness data in Scotland as this equalities data is not collected at the moment as part of the homelessness application. The evidence reviewed pointed out that internationally there were two related barriers to data collection on gender and sexual identity. One, some LGBTI people experiencing homelessness chose to not disclose this part of their identity for fear of discrimination from service providers. Second, concerns from service providers over privacy and pressuring people to disclose their identity (See section 5.1.6). These issues where not resolved in the evidence reviewed for this report and might require further focus to find a way to avoid pressures or fears of disclosure for LGBTI people.

Young people

In the evidence from UK and North America hidden homelessness of young people was expected to present mostly as sofa surfing or sleeping in hostels (paid for the young person).Scotland's homelessness statistics contemplate both circumstances, so it is unclear if this type of homelessness is hidden here with regards specifically to young people. There was only one study from the UK which produced an estimation on the prevalence of hidden homelessness for people under 25 years in Scotland and it was cautioned by their authors as having significant limitations (Clarke, 2016).

Other populations

Other population groups such as veterans, disabled people and care leavers are mentioned in the wider literature on homelessness but no evidence was found of studies that specifically referred to their enumeration as hidden homeless. The lack of specific evidence could be interpreted in many ways. It could be that they are not that often found to experience hidden forms of homelessness, but it could also be due to a lack of dedicated studies focussing on these groups.

With regards to people leaving institutional care, in 2021-22 5% of people applying for homelessness support in Scotland cited being discharged from prison/hospital/care or other institution as the main reason for being homeless (The Scottish Government, 2022b, p. 15). While this information is captured when someone presents to their local authority, data is not collected when someone is discharged which could provide a better understanding if there is people being discharged from an institution experiencing homelessness but that do not present to their local authority. This was a gap in the evidence reviewed for this report and will require further research.

Overall, national statistics and previous research give us valuable insights to begin to understand who could be missing from our counts. However, more research is required for most of these groups to understand if any of these or other populations are likely to experience hidden forms of homelessness in Scotland.


Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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