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Hidden homelessness

Groundbreaking report reveals surge in rural rough sleeping since the pandemic has been worsened by the cost of living crisis
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Abandoned derelict lorry in wooded field, once home to a rough sleeper. Various items of clothing can be seen around the rusty vehicle

The countryside is battling a ‘hidden homelessness’ crisis driven by soaring housing costs and a gaping shortfall in local authority funding, a new report shows. 
The true scale of the crisis is likely to be far higher than the official statistics. The year-long study, which included a survey of 157 frontline support workers, service providers, NGOs and shelters, found an overwhelming majority thought rural homelessness was a serious problem that was getting worse.

‘The brutal reality’

91% of respondents in rural areas have seen homelessness increase in the past five years, while 83% said their job had become harder in the past five years.

81% believe that rough sleeping is experienced differently in rural areas compared with urban areas.

‘This research shines a spotlight on a growing rural crisis hidden in plain sight. You see here the brutal reality beyond the insufficient official statistics. People who have no chance of affording a basic standard of living through no fault of their own. You don’t tend to see people sleeping rough in rural areas – but they’re there, normally hidden in agricultural buildings, outhouses, sleeping rough on farmland or condemned to an insecure life of sofa surfing.

‘Because funding is so inadequate, many people are moving to urban centres for much needed support. It is in all our interests to fix this crisis.  
‘Rural homelessness is a significant problem, and a lack of support and funding for affordable homes and services in these areas puts vulnerable households at a distinct disadvantage. The findings of this research should drive a step change in our approach to the issue. Local and national leaders must come together to say clearly that ‘rural homelessness counts’. 

Chief executive of English Rural and co-chair of the research project

Less financial aid in rural areas

The study, by academics at the University of Kent and the University of Southampton, on behalf of a coalition of rural charities and housing associations, shows rural areas being paid a fraction of what they need to tackle homelessness in their communities. 
Overall, rural local authorities are receiving 65% less in funding per capita through the Homelessness Prevention Grant than urban areas, who are themselves chronically underfunded.

The sharp discrepancy in financial aid, discovered in statistics released by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, shows urban local authorities were paid £7.15 per homeless person, compared with just £2.50 per homeless person paid to rural local authorities when compared on a like-for-like basis.

Digging trenches in snow

Interviews with more than 40 people, including people who sleep rough and outreach workers in four rural locations, paint a striking picture of isolation and resilience.   
People who experience homelessness in rural areas often sleep rough in farmland or woodland, making them much harder for outreach workers to find and support, and putting their life and health in jeopardy.

Real-life stories shared with the researchers included people digging trenches in the snow to sleep, going several days without food, being spat on, their tents set on fire and muggings that resulted in brain injuries and teeth being knocked out. 

The study found that isolation also made the problem far worse for those facing homelessness in rural areas, where limited transport options and the absence of support placed them at greater risk. Those with physical or mental health needs were found to be most vulnerable.

Farmers offer lifeline for rough sleepers

Farmers were frequently cited as a lifeline by those experiencing rural homelessness, allowing people to pitch tents in their fields and providing clean water and cups of tea in the morning.

But some farmers expressed frustration at regulations they said prevented them from allowing rough sleepers to stay on their land, for fear of being criminalised by local authorities.

‘Farmers caring for people sleeping rough in their fields is a shocking indictment of government indifference. This is a political choice being paid for by our most vulnerable. It shouldn’t be this way, but chronic underfunding and years of slashed budgets means there is no longer a social safety net in the countryside.   
‘In many cases, the homelessness crisis in rural areas is hidden by the kindness of others. It’s very generous, and no doubt welcome, but contributes to the true scale of the crisis going unreported.    
‘Hard-working people are falling through the cracks of a broken system and the government must take responsibility. We need immediate action to fix a growing affordable housing crisis that, in one of the richest countries in the world, is nothing short of a national disgrace.’   
‘The coalition is calling for local and national leaders to make a clear commitment that ‘rural homelessness counts’

Interim chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity

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