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A moving target: the challenges of identifying and helping homeless university students.

  • 13 May 2019
  • By Patrick Mulrenan

A guest blog from Patrick Mulrenan, the course leader for the BSc Community Development and Leadership at London Metropolitan University.

One of the challenges of policy making is that issues are sometimes defined in stereotypes. This is particularly true of university education. Television programmes such as Fresh Meat have portrayed students as living in self-imposed squalor. Poor housing conditions are seen as a rite of passage, rather than the result of an unforgiving housing market. Likewise homeless people are stereotyped as men with beards living on the street. This blog argues that homelessness among students may be a hidden problem, and should be quantified and recognised as a higher education policy issue.

Homelessness has been increasing in the UK since 2010. There are 320,000 homeless people in Britain. The most visible sign of this is rough sleeping. However, the vast majority of homeless people are in temporary accommodation, and are waiting for an offer of decent affordable housing. In London alone, there are more than 164,000 people in temporary accommodation. It is worth stepping back and considering this figure: the population of people living in homeless temporary accommodation in London is greater than the entire population of the City of Cambridge. We know some information about these people – for example, why they became homeless, household composition and ethnicity. What we do not know is how many are university students.

Homelessness is likely to be more common among university students, as universities strive to be more inclusive of groups who have previously faced barriers to higher education. Universities have achieved some success in widening participation. In 2017, a record number of 18-year olds entered university, and this included a record number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These include those from poor areas, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and care leavers – precisely the groups that are most likely to be affected by homelessness. Thirty-eight per cent of those accepted as homeless by local authorities in 2018 were non-White.

There are other reasons why homelessness may be a significant issue among university students. For obvious reasons, universities tend to be sited in areas with large populations. With this large population comes high housing demand and relatively low supply. In fact, it could be argued that the universities themselves contribute to increased high housing prices and hence to homelessness. Taking the case of Greater Manchester, almost 100,000 students attend the city’s four main universities.

The first step to helping homeless students is to assess the size of the issue. Unfortunately, this may not be simple for a number of reasons. Our own small-scale research on this topic found that homeless students often had a feeling of shame about their housing situation. None of the participants in the research had approached the university for help, few had told their friends at university, and some had not even told their families. As one student said: ‘I didn’t mention it to anyone… I just felt I did not want anyone to sympathise with me, and I think that’s where I went wrong.’

The second challenge is one of definition. There are many types of homelessness, and some people with no permanent accommodation would not even identify themselves as homeless. This would particularly apply to the ‘hidden homeless’, who may be staying with friends. Up to one-in-ten Londoners may experience hidden homelessness in any one year.

The third challenge is that is that students’ housing circumstances may change several times during their studies. Some may come to the university as homeless, while others may become homeless during the course of their degrees. It is also common for people to face repeated episodes of homelessness as they negotiate a challenging housing market. Universities collect a range of data when students enter university, including ethnicity, disability and whether they have left care. Unlike homelessness, these characteristics mostly do not change while students are at university.

There are two modest steps that universities could take to addressing this problem. The first is that support services make clear that homelessness should not be seen as a matter of embarrassment and shame. At London Metropolitan University, we are currently working with councils to develop bespoke leaflets for homeless students. We are also planning to host a homelessness day to provide information and publicise the issues of homelessness.

Photo taken from a Family Day organised as part of London Metropolitan’s research into homelessness amongst students

The University has also funded a Family Day (pictured) for students to bring their children to the campus. One of the main findings of our research was that the homeless students came to university and stayed there because they wanted to act as a role model for their children. Although not specifically targeted at homeless students – for the reasons outlined above – it provides recognition that children play a special part in the university experience of homeless students.

The second proposal is to carry out a pilot study to start to assess the extent of homelessness among university students. As noted above, the largest group of homeless people is those who have been accepted as homeless by local authorities, and are now in temporary accommodation. We would recommend that students are surveyed by universities to quantify this type of homelessness. This has several advantages as a first step. The students have been accepted as homeless already, and will be well aware that they are homeless until they are offered suitable accommodation. Secondly, the extended periods that people spend in temporary accommodation makes it less of a ‘moving target’ than other more fluid types of homelessness.

If these surveys indicate that homelessness is a significant issue, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) may wish to consider the information it is collecting from students. For example, as well as identifying where students live during term time, it could advise universities to identify students who are homeless.

Unfortunately, homelessness cannot be resolved at an institutional level. The overheated housing market in the UK is driven by national policy and international trends. But these proposals may at least help universities focus their services in the right areas to help homeless students.


  1. Alistair Dyer says:

    I attended an inner city ex polytechnic in the early 90’s and spent much of my second year ‘couch-surfing’ between three different friends flats depending on who was willing to put up with me!

    At the time I wouldn’t have identified myself as being homeless – i’m sure this still goes on and wonder how you could uncover this other hidden layer of student homelessness?

  2. Patrick Mulrenan says:

    Hi Alistair. An interesting point- the link ‘up to one in ten Londoners’ takes you to a report about counting the hidden homeless. I’m not sure what your circumstances were- but often the view is that sofa surfing or poor housing conditions are a rite of passage for young single students. Most of the students in my research were parents, and felt the burden of responsibility for their children. This partly explains the sense of shame that they had- even though they knew it was not their fault, and many people they knew were in the same situation

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