Research reveals startling gap between perception and reality of homelessness

published on 3 Feb 2015

More than half of online adults aged 18+ (54%) say they always, or almost always do nothing when they see someone in the street who is homeless. 

More than a quarter of people say the main cause of homelessness is alcohol or drug addiction (27 per cent), more than twice the percentage who said debt (13 per cent), the nearest other cause, according to new research commissioned by The Salvation Army and carried out by Ipsos MORI*.

The Salvation Army also carried out a survey of more than 300 residents of its centres (Lifehouses) for people experiencing homelessness and this reveals a worrying gap between the reality of what it's like to be homeless and the perception of the general public.

[What do you think? Take our online survey]

The Church and charity is warning that without greater education this gap will widen, making it harder for people who are experiencing homelessness to get their lives back on track which could risk increasing the cost to society in the future.

Major Howard Russell, Deputy Territorial Director of Homelessness Services at The Salvation Army, said: “At The Salvation Army we are working to end the cycle of homelessness and one of the key hurdles we face is around people's attitudes as our research reveals the general public believe alcohol and drugs are the root cause of homelessness when, in our experience, this isn't the case. We believe educating the public on the reality of what causes homelessness is the way to overcome this." 

The Church and charity's survey of its Lifehouses, reveals the main cause of homelessness is relationship breakdown (43 per cent), followed by a combination of issues (16 per cent), physical or mental health problems (13 per cent), job loss (11 per cent), then addiction (10 per cent), and finally debt (6 per cent).

Major Russell said: "While the general public appear to be aware that there are a variety of causes of homelessness, more than a quarter of people incorrectly perceive drug and alcohol addiction to be the main cause.

“Yes, alcohol and drugs may be a problem for many people experiencing homeless, this often comes as a result of homelessness and, as our survey of our Lifehouse residents shows, it is rarely the cause. Instead, it is relationship breakdown, something that can happen to anyone at any time."

While revealing that 79 per cent of people say that at least some of the time they do nothing when they see someone who is experiencing homelessness, 33 per cent say they give cash at least sometimes, 20 per cent purchased something to eat or drink and only 8 per cent say that they at least sometimes find out where the nearest homeless service is and pass on the details to the person who is sleeping rough.

Major Russell continued: “We find it quite shocking that such a large proportion of the public polled would simply walk on by, doing nothing for a person sleeping rough. It isn’t an issue that can be ignored and we believe awareness needs to be raised.

“Our extensive experience has shown us that homelessness can affect anyone, and so it is surprising that the Ipsos MORI poll has revealed 50 per cent of people don’t think that they, or someone close to them could ever experience homelessness. At our Lifehouses you'll find many people who previously worked in a range of professions and skilled jobs.”

The Church and charity’s survey of Lifehouses reported that 89 per cent of residents agreed that if there was one thing they wished they’d known before they experienced homelessness it was that it can happen to anyone.

The Salvation Army believe the Ipsos MORI research reveals a lack of understanding around who can be affected by homelessness as a third (33 per of people) say it is not at all likely that someone with a job that requires a professional qualification could ever become homeless. 

The survey of Salvation Army Lifehouse residents shows that 72 per cent worked before they experienced homelessness. In addition, 65 per cent reported that employers treat them differently when they find out they’re homeless. For 70 per cent people in general treat them differently because they are experiencing homelessness.

Craig was a regional manager at a large hospitality firm. A combination of issues caused his life to spiral out of control and soon he was struggling with addiction and ended up losing his wife, children and home.  He arrived on the doorstep of The Salvation Army’s Lifehouse in Sunderland, Swan Lodge where he was given a bed along with the help from experienced and skilled staff to believe in himself again and get his life back on track at his own pace.

Craig said: “Once you become homeless it is incredibly difficult to get your life back on track and the general public can make it harder as most just don’t understand and assume we’re all the lowest of the low.  People can be very judgmental and often just see the homelessness rather than the individual.  This only adds to the problem and can have an affect on the mental health of many people who are experiencing homelessness, and it did in my case.

“Solving homelessness long term is not just about getting a bed for a night and The Salvation Army understand that.  It’s why I believe I’ve been able to put my demons behind me. One of the key things that helped was being offered training in whatever I was interested in at the Lifehouse.  Now, I work at Swan Lodge and I use my experience to help others but it is harrowing to see the prejudice people face on a day to day basis. People who have been homeless can get their lives back on track, and it certainly doesn’t help to just ignore the problem and hope it goes away. What I'd like the public to understand is homeless is not who I am."

The survey of Lifehouse residents reveals 68 per cent feel that people see their homelessness rather than them as a person.

The Ipsos MORI survey of online adults in the UK goes further in revealing the challenges faced by people once they have secured somewhere permanent to live and got their lives back on track, as over half (51 per cent) agree that employers are less likely to give jobs to people who have previously experienced homeless. 

Major Russell concluded: “The MORI poll result appears to suggest that people believe once you’ve experienced homelessness employers will think twice about giving you a job. At The Salvation Army we never give up on anyone as we believe in helping individuals to reach their full potential, whatever that may be, and we would like to encourage people to put themselves in the shoes of a someone experiencing homelessness, as it is something that can happen to anyone, it's not just alcoholics and drug addicts." 

The Salvation Army is an expert in running services for people experiencing homelessness and understands that a tailored and personal approach is needed when providing support.  The Church and charity is keen to demonstrate that it's not a simple case of providing accommodation as it employs a skilled workforce who are there at every step of the way to walk alongside residents and equip them with the skills and support they need to reach their full potential, whether that be employment, re-connecting with family or beating an addiction.

In total The Salvation Army have more than 80 homelessness services around the UK and the Republic of Ireland. It runs a number of courses and activities at all it's Lifehouses which range from employment skills and cookery classes to how to keep their tenancy when they get somewhere to live, an important part of breaking the cycle of homelessness.  

According to The Salvation Army's survey, 76 per cent of residents take part in at least one activity on offer and 32 per cent do all the courses available to them, which the Church and charity believe shows how keen residents are to get their lives on track, if society will allow them the opportunity.

This year The Salvation Army is celebrating 150 years of transforming lives and it is still at the heart of every community today, supporting those in need.

If a member of the public sees someone rough sleeping The Salvation Army would like to suggest they contact StreetLink which is a phone-line, website and mobile app available across England which enables the public to alert local authorities about rough sleepers in their area.

This service offers the public a means to act when they see someone sleeping rough and is the first step someone can take to ensure rough sleepers are connected to local services and support available to them. Simply call 0300 500 0914, send an alert via the mobile app or log on to  

In other parts of the UK and Ireland The Salvation Army would suggest the public visit their local council’s website for 24 hour assistance on what they can do to help someone who is sleeping rough or experiencing homelessness.

Notes to Editors

*Research commissioned by The Salvation Army and carried out by Ipsos MORI.  2,119UK adults were interviewed online between 9-13th January 2015. The data has been weighted to the national profile of the UK population.

The Salvation Army conducted an anonymous survey of 314 residents of its Lifehouses at the following locations:

















Media enquiries:

Sophie Docker, Media Manager, The Salvation Army, Tel: 020 7367 4517