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Advice if you are homeless

This fact sheet covers England & WalesWe also have a version for Scotland if you need it.

Get all the help you can

Being homeless can be overwhelming, but it is important to know what help is available to you. If you qualify for help under the homelessness rules, the council may be able to help you find a home. In some circumstances, the council will have to offer you accommodation. 

Don’t assume that you can't get any help. This fact sheet can help you understand what the council can do for you. It might make a positive difference to what happens next. 

Use this factsheet to:

  • work out what housing you might be able to get;
  • help you understand when you can get help;
  • understand the process the council must follow; and
  • deal with the problems you may face in trying to get rehoused.

If you are not currently homeless, but are worried that you may lose your home, see our Advice if you are worried about losing your home fact sheet for information.

Extra rules apply if you are worried about losing your home because of domestic violence. If you need to find somewhere else to live because you are experiencing or being threatened with domestic violence in your home, contact your local council or another council straightaway. In this situation, the council should treat you as homeless. Use this fact to see what help you can get.

In partnership with Shelter

We would like to thank Shelter for their help with the writing of this fact sheet.

Help from the council

In England, the rules that councils must follow are set out in Part VII of the Housing Act 1996. On 3 April 2018, some of the legislation in the Housing Act 1996 was replaced by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017.

In Wales, the rules that councils must follow are set out in the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. Although England and Wales have different legislation, the rules councils must follow are very similar.

Councils use this legislation to work out what help to give you if you are either threatened with homelessness or are homeless.

The law uses special terms, such as:

  • eligible for help;
  • in priority need;
  • intentionally homeless; and
  • a local connection.

These are explained in the following sections.

If you live in Wales

The rules for renting a home in Wales changed on 1 December 2022. Most tenants in Wales are now known as ‘contract-holders’ and most tenancies in Wales are now known as ‘occupation contracts’. In this fact sheet, we use the term ‘tenant’ to also include ‘contract-holders’ and the term ‘tenancy’ to also include ‘occupation contracts’ unless we explain otherwise. 

Who is eligible for help?

If you are homeless, you will be treated as eligible for help unless you are ‘a person from abroad’. Certain categories of people who are classed as a ‘person from abroad’ can be eligible, for example if you have:

  • refugee status;
  • settled immigration status; or 
  • exceptional leave to enter and remain.

European Union (EU) nationals

The rules about EU nationals and who is eligible for help are complicated. This section shows the main rules that apply. This advice also applies if you are a citizen of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland. 

  • You can get help if you are an Irish citizen.
  • You can get help if you have settled status in the UK. 
  • You may be able to get help if you have pre-settled status in the UK, but you will have to meet extra conditions.
  • You may be able to get help if you applied to the EU settlement scheme by 30 June 2021 and are still waiting for your application to be processed.

If you are unsure whether you are eligible for help, contact Shelter for more information. See Useful contacts at the end of this fact sheet.

Seek specialist advice

The rules on eligibility are very complex. If you have recently come into this country or are a national of another country, you need to seek specialist advice.

You can get further advice from www.shelter.org.uk, or a local Shelter advice service. If you have nowhere to sleep tonight, are at risk of harm or losing your home within the next two months, call Shelter Helpline on 0808 800 4444 for advice and information on your options.

Who is in priority need?

The council will say you are in priority need if:

  • your household includes someone who is pregnant;
  • your household includes dependent children;
  • you are vulnerable (for example, because of old age or a mental or physical disability), or your household includes someone who is vulnerable;
  • you are homeless because of domestic abuse; or
  • you are homeless because of an emergency such as a flood, fire or other disaster.

This is not a complete list of why the council might class you as in priority need. If you think you are in priority need because of another reason, check with your local council to see if this means they can help you.

Young people

Aged 16 or 17

If you are homeless, in most cases you are classed as a 'Child in Need' and are the responsibility of social services. This also applies if you have left foster care. Social services should take your wishes into account and should not offer foster care as a homelessness solution if this is not necessary.

Contact the homeless department of your local council who should provide emergency 'interim' accommodation to make sure you are safe. They will speak to social services. The council and social services will decide between them which department should help you in the longer term.

Who is intentionally homeless?

You are intentionally homeless if all of the following apply:

  • you deliberately do or don't do something which caused you to be homeless by leaving your accommodation (unless it was in good faith);
  • the accommodation was otherwise available for you to live in; and 
  • it was reasonable for you to keep living there.

The council may decide you are intentionally homeless if:

  • you had somewhere else that was reasonable for you to live, but you chose to leave or to give up the property;
  • you left somewhere where you could have continued to live, and you only left to get some help from the council;
  • you have contrived your eviction (meaning you have arranged with your landlord that they tell you to leave); or
  • you took on a new tenancy or mortgage even though you knew you could not afford the rent or mortgage payments at the time, and you have now lost your home due to arrears.

There are other reasons the council could decide you are intentionally homeless, for example, if you were evicted because of anti-social behaviour. If you are not sure whether you have made yourself intentionally homeless, contact Shelter for more information. See Useful contacts at the end of this fact sheet.

You should not be intentionally homeless in the following situations.

  • You left home because you felt threatened with violence.
  • Your home was repossessed due to arrears which arose because you could not afford to pay your rent or mortgage, but you were able to afford the payments when you moved in. You need to show you were in financial hardship and there was no way your income could cover your rent or mortgage payment.
  • The conditions in your home were so bad that you could not remain, and it would have been unreasonable to expect you to stay.
  • You lost your home through someone else’s actions which you did not know about or had no control over.

If the council decides you are intentionally homeless and you are a family with dependent children, the council can refer you to social services for help. You have to agree to the referral first. Social services have the power, under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, to assist you with finding accommodation, perhaps by helping with rent in advance and a deposit. If the council says that they do not have to house you, then social services will offer to house the children only. Any adults in the family will have to find their own accommodation. In this case you may be able to challenge a decision. Contact Shelter for more information, see Useful contacts at the end of this fact sheet.

Living in Wales

If you live in Wales, each council can usually choose whether or not to apply the intentionally homeless rules when deciding if they should help you.

Although, from 2 December 2019, all councils in Wales have a duty to secure accommodation for certain households who are in a priority need, even if they are considered intentionally homeless. This usually includes households containing a pregnant person, dependent child or an adult under age 21 (or under age 25 if previously in care).

If you are unsure which rules your council should follow, contact Shelter Cymru. See Useful contacts at the end of this fact sheet.

What is a local connection?

The council look at whether you have a connection to their area. If you have no local connection with the council where you have applied, you can be referred to an area where you do have a local connection instead.

You will have a local connection if you:

  • have lived in the area for six months out of the last year, or three out of the last five years;
  • work in the area;
  • want to live near a close relative who has lived in the area for more than five years; or
  • need to live in the area for a particular reason, such as you or your family needing to go to a certain school or use a hospital that is there.

If you have a local connection with the council you have applied to, as well as to another area, then you should not be referred to another council. If you have no local connection with the council you have applied to for rehousing, they may ask another council to help you, unless there is a risk of violence to your household if you return to the other council's area.

If you have no local connection with another area (for example, you may have just come from abroad), then the council you apply to first must help you.

Armed forces

You will be treated as working in the area if you are serving in the armed forces.

Care leavers

If you are leaving care and do not have somewhere to live, you are entitled to help from the council. The council call this 'leaving care duties'. You are considered to have a local connection with:

  • the local authority that owes the leaving care duties;
  • any authority in the country where you were looked after by the county council; or
  • an authority in which you have lived for at least 2 years, at least some of the time before you turned 16.

This kind of local connection will last until you are 21.

Where can I get information?

If you are homeless, you should go to the housing department at the local council. The council must give advice to anyone who is homeless, or threatened with homelessness. This advice is free. The advice should tell you:

  • what your rights are;
  • what help is available from the council; and
  • how to get help.

The advice must be accessible to everyone. It should be designed to meet the needs of vulnerable people.

Will the council carry out an assessment?

The council has a duty to carry out an assessment with you if they think you are:

  • homeless; and
  • eligible for help (see earlier section: Who is eligible for help?).

The assessment must look at:

  • why you are homeless;
  • what your housing needs are; and
  • what help you need to find and keep suitable accommodation.

The assessment must be in writing. The council should give you a copy of the assessment.

You and the council should then try to agree a ‘personalised housing plan’. The personalised housing plan will be based on the assessment that the council carried out. It should show what steps you need to take to find new accommodation. It should also say what steps the council will take to help you do this.

Councils in England should give you a copy of your personalised housing plan and there will be a copy for you at the council's housing office.

If you and the council don’t agree with the personalised housing plan, councils in England must write down why you disagree. The plan must include what steps they believe it would be reasonable for you to take and what steps it would be reasonable for them to take.

The assessment and personalised housing plan

The council should keep the assessment and personalised housing plan under review. Tell the council if your circumstances change.

What are the council's duties if I am homeless?

The council has a responsibility to help you if you are homeless. The council must help you for 56 days if:

  • you are homeless; and
  • you are eligible for help (see earlier section: Who is eligible for help?).

The council must take reasonable steps to help you find and take up accommodation. The steps both you and the council must take are explained in your personalised housing plan.

The council has a duty to help all eligible applicants, even if you are not in priority need and have been found intentionally homeless. This is sometimes called the ‘relief duty’.

What help can you expect if you are homeless but not in priority need?

If you are eligible for help, but do not have a priority need, the council must help you for 56 days to try to find somewhere to live. This accommodation must be somewhere you can live for at least six months. The help the council could give includes:

  • making you an offer of accommodation;
  • providing you with a rent deposit; or
  • helping you to find affordable accommodation.

The council’s duty to help you can come to an end if:

  • you have found suitable accommodation that is likely to last for six months or more;
  • you refuse an offer of accommodation that is likely to last for six months or more;
  • the council believe that you have 'deliberately and unreasonably refused to co-operate'; or 
  • you withdraw from the process.

The council must give you written notice that the process is coming to an end. They must also explain to you how you can ask for a review.

What help can you expect if you are homeless and in priority need?

When the council has reason to believe you are homeless, eligible for help and in priority need, they must provide you with interim accommodation. The council must do this until they have made a decision on whether you are in priority need. If you are intentionally homeless and in priority need, the council must provide you with temporary accommodation for a reasonable period. They must also offer you advice and assistance.

If the council offers you suitable accommodation and you refuse, they have no further duty to help you.

If you refuse to co-operate with the steps in the personalised housing plan but you are in priority need, the council must offer you a “final accommodation offer”. This can be a tenancy with a private landlord. This is usually called an assured shorthold tenancy. There are more details about this type of tenancy in the later section, Other housing options.

Duty of public authorities

You can be referred to the council for help with housing by other public bodies. Public bodies could be hospitals, prisons, schools or GPs. They can only do this if they believe you are at risk of becoming homeless and they have your permission to do so. You can choose which council you are referred to.

Other housing options

The council waiting list

You can go on the waiting list at the same time as applying for rehousing as a homeless person.

Councils must have a scheme for deciding who can join the council waiting list. Individual councils have the power to decide who can join their list and why.

Reasons that someone may not be able to join a waiting list include the following.

  • Immigration status (this could prevent you from joining any waiting list).
  • Unacceptable behaviour, for example, serious anti-social behaviour or having previous rent arrears.

All schemes must give priority when allocating council housing to certain groups of people. This is called 'reasonable preference'. Individual councils can choose who they give reasonable preference to. You may be given reasonable preference if:

  • you live in overcrowded or unsanitary accommodation;
  • you live in temporary or insecure accommodation;
  • you live with dependent children or you are a pregnant woman;
  • you live in a household with someone who needs settled accommodation because they are ill or disabled; or 
  • you find it difficult to get settled secure accommodation.

Someone who is single and already has somewhere to live may wait a long time to be offered accommodation or may be excluded from some scheme lists altogether.

What if I disagree with the council’s decision?

You can ask the council for a review if they will not let you on their waiting list. The deadline for requesting this type of review is normally 21 days. Contact us for advice.

Housing associations

Housing associations may be able to offer good accommodation at an affordable rent. Some will only let you apply if you already have your name on the council waiting list. In some areas housing associations and the council operate a joint waiting list. If this is the case, you will not need to apply individually to each housing association. Ask the housing association what rules apply in your area.

Housing associations may have their own criteria for people who they will house first. Some associations are set up to help certain groups of people, such as the elderly or low-income families. The council should be able to give you a list of housing associations in your area. GOV.UK provides details of your local council's website.

Private landlords

Private landlords often advertise on the internet, in the newspaper or in shop windows. Some choose to let the property through an estate agent or property agent. Agents will often run credit reference checks. If you have some adverse information such as a county court judgment (CCJ) on your credit reference file, a private landlord may not agree to let you rent out their property.

If you decide to rent privately, look around first to find out what is on offer in your area and get an idea of what sort of rents are being charged.

You may need to find out from a local advice agency what maximum rents will be covered by the housing element of Universal Credit or by Housing Benefit in your area. They may also keep lists of local landlords. Landlords who have a smaller amount of properties may be more likely to rent you a property if you receive the housing element of Universal Credit or Housing Benefit. They are also less likely to run credit checks on potential tenants. Have a look at the house before you agree to move in or hand over any money. Ask for a receipt for any money you pay as rent or as a deposit. There are different types of private tenancy agreements. Your rights are affected by the type of tenancy you take and what sort of accommodation you have. Before signing an agreement with a landlord get advice from a local advice agency. 

In England, most private tenancies are assured shorthold tenancies. These will usually run for a minimum of six months. You can be evicted with a court order using a bailiff's warrant just because the tenancy has ended once the term of the tenancy has run out. Bailiffs are commonly known as enforcement agents. 

In Wales, you will usually have a standard occupation contract if your landlord is a private landlord. Check your contract (also called a 'written statement') to see what type of agreement you have and how it can be ended.

Help with rent payments

If you are on a low income, you might be able to claim the housing element of Universal Credit to help with your rent. The amount of help you can get depends on where you live, how many bedrooms you are entitled to and the type of landlord you rent from. If you rent from a private landlord, you can work out the maximum you are allowed at the Directgov website.

In some circumstances, you might need to apply for Housing Benefit instead. This is usually because you have reached State Pension age or live in certain supported, sheltered or temporary housing. Housing Benefit may not cover your rent payments in full. You should work out a budget before signing any new agreement to make sure you can afford to 'top-up' your rent payments.

If you are under 35, rent from a private landlord and live alone, you may have to top up more rent than if you were in different circumstances. For more information go to  www.shelter.org.uk and type ‘Local housing allowance (LHA) if you're under 35' into the search box.

If you get the housing element of Universal Credit or Housing Benefit and the amount doesn’t cover all your rent, you can apply to your council for a Discretionary Housing Payment. This is an amount of money the council can give you to help with housing costs that doesn't have to be paid back. It is up to the council whether to give you a discretionary housing payment, and if so, how much. Shelter has an online tool that uses your postcode to find the contact details for your council’s discretionary housing payments team. Go to www.shelter.org.uk and type ‘Discretionary housing payments’ into the search box.

If you get certain benefits, you may be able to apply for a budgeting loan or advance. For more information about benefits go to www.gov.uk and type the name of the benefit you are looking for into the search box.

Help with deposits

In some areas rental deposits, or ‘bond’ schemes, have been set up to help people on a low income or benefits to find private rented accommodation. These schemes help with rental deposits. Under the scheme you do not have to pay a deposit up front, and the tenancy agreement is with a landlord from an approved list. Your council may also help with rent in advance under their homelessness prevention powers. Schemes vary, so contact your local advice agency, local council or Shelter for more information. See Useful contacts at the end of this fact sheet.

Tenancy deposit protection

Since April 2007, any deposit you have to pay for a new assured shorthold tenancy must be protected under a government tenancy deposit protection scheme. Your landlord must tell you which scheme they have used to safeguard your deposit money until the end of the tenancy. The schemes can sort out disputes between you and your landlord. For more information, go to www.gov.uk and type ‘tenancy deposit protection’ into the search box.

If your landlord does not protect your deposit in time, you may be entitled to compensation. It may also prevent your landlord from evicting you in certain circumstances. Contact us for advice.

Other help

You may also be able to get help in the following ways.

  • Asking social services for help if you have children. Contact your council for details of your local social services department.
  • Applying to the council's local welfare assistance scheme. Check with your local council if they still run one of these types of schemes.

Useful contacts

Shelter You can get further advice from www.shelter.org.uk, or a local Shelter advice service. If you have nowhere to sleep tonight, are at risk of harm or losing your home within the next two months, call Shelter Helpline on 0808 800 4444 for advice and information on your options.

Shelter Cymru For expert housing advice if you live in Wales. Phone: 0800 049 5495 www.sheltercymru.org.uk

Law Centres There may be a law centre locally that deals with housing issues. Phone: 020 3637 1330 www.lawcentres.org.uk

Local Citizens Advice The address of your local Citizens Advice Bureau should be in the phone book. You can also check the Citizens Advice website: www.citizensadvice.org.uk

Civil Legal Advice To find a local housing solicitor. Phone: 0345 345 4345 www.gov.uk/civil-legal-advice

Other fact sheets that may help you

Advice if you are worried about losing your home

Rent arrears - England fact sheet

Rent arrears for standard occupation contracts - Wales fact sheet

Rent arrears for secure occupation contracts - Wales fact sheet