Homelessness data: notes and definitions

Information and guidance for local authorities compiling the P1E quarterly data returns on homelessness.


This guidance is to be read in conjunction with the series on homelessness which includes the latest statistical releases and sets of live tables.

The term ‘homelessness’ is often considered to apply only to people ‘sleeping rough’. However, most of our statistics on homelessness relate to the statutorily homeless i.e. those households which meet specific criteria of priority need set out in legislation, and to whom a homelessness duty has been accepted by a local authority.

Such households are rarely homeless in the literal sense of being without a roof over their heads, but are more likely to be threatened with the loss of, or are unable to continue with, their current accommodation.

Statutory homelessness

Each local housing authority is required to consider housing needs within its area, including the needs of homeless households, to whom local authorities have a statutory duty to provide assistance.

The Housing Act 1977, Housing Act 1996, and the Homelessness Act 2002, placed statutory duties on local housing authorities to ensure that advice and assistance to households who are homeless or threatened with homelessness is available free of charge. All households that apply for assistance under the Housing and Homelessness Acts are referred to as ‘decisions’. However, these do not include households found to be ineligible for assistance (some persons from abroad are ineligible for assistance).

A ‘main homelessness duty’ is owed where the authority is satisfied that the applicant is eligible for assistance, unintentionally homeless and falls within a specified priority need group. Such statutorily homeless households are referred to as ‘acceptances’.

The ‘priority need groups’ include households with dependent children or a pregnant woman and people who are vulnerable in some way e.g. because of mental illness or physical disability. In 2002 an Order made under the 1996 Act extended the priority need categories to include applicants:

  • aged 16 or 17
  • aged 18 to 20 who were previously in care
  • vulnerable as a result of time spent in care, in custody, or in HM Forces
  • vulnerable as a result of having to flee their home because of violence or the threat of violence

Where a main duty is owed, the authority must ensure that suitable accommodation is available for the applicant and his or her household. The duty continues until a settled housing solution becomes available for them, or some other circumstance brings the duty to an end. Where households are found to be intentionally homeless, or not in priority need, the authority must make an assessment of their housing needs and provide advice and assistance to help them find accommodation for themselves.

Figures are collected on the number of households in ‘temporary accommodation’ on the last day of each quarter, as arranged by local housing authorities. In most cases, the authority is discharging a main homelessness duty to secure suitable accommodation until a settled home becomes available for the applicant household.

However, the numbers also include households provided with accommodation pending a decision on their homelessness application, households pending a review or appeal to the county court of the decision on their case, or possible referral to another local authority, and households found to be intentionally homeless and in priority need who were being accommodated for such period as would give them a reasonable opportunity to find accommodation for themselves.

Rough sleepers

Rough sleepers are defined for the purposes of rough sleeping counts and estimates as:

  • people sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments)
  • people in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or ‘bashes’).

The definition does not include people in hostels or shelters, people in campsites or other sites used for recreational purposes or organised protest, squatters or travellers.

Bedded down is taken to mean either lying down or sleeping. About to bed down includes those who are sitting in/on or near a sleeping bag or other bedding.

Homelessness prevention and relief

Under the Homelessness Act 2002, local housing authorities must have a strategy for preventing homelessness in their district. The strategy must apply to everyone at risk of homelessness, not just people who may fall within a priority need group for the purposes of Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996. Authorities are also encouraged to take steps to relieve homelessness in cases where someone has been found to be homeless but is not owed a duty to secure accommodation under the homelessness legislation.

‘Homelessness prevention’ means providing people with the ways and means to address their housing and other needs to avoid homelessness.

‘Homelessness relief’ is where an authority has been unable to prevent homelessness but helps someone to secure accommodation, even though the authority is under no statutory obligation to do so.

P1E quarterly return

The purpose of the quarterly P1E forms is to collect data from English local housing authorities on their responsibilities under homelessness legislation. It also includes a section on homelessness prevention and relief.

Summary information from these returns is published by the Department for Communities and Local Government in Statutory homelessness in England, a quarterly statistical release.

All associated tables, including key data at local authority level, can be found in the live tables on homelessness.

P1E guidance notes

P1E guidance notes: quarter 1, 2015

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P1E returns form

P1E return form: quarter 1, 2015

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Further guidance for local authorities about recording cases where homelessness is prevented or relieved can be found in P1E guidance: homelessness prevention and relief.