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Temporary, emergency and council accommodation: What’s the difference?

  • 6 min read |
  • Posted by Research, Policy & Comms Team
  • On 01 June 2023

The latest official figures show that there are now 105,750 households in temporary accommodation (TA) including 139,840 children as of March 2023; a new high since records began 25 years ago.

Shelter estimates that around 250,000 individuals live in TA - a population about the size of Westminster. In spite of the staggering numbers, temporary accommodation remains relatively unknown in comparison to rough sleeping, a more visible form of homelessness.

This is mainly because people in TA have roof over their heads and are therefore “hidden”, but also because ‘temporary accommodation’ itself is difficult to define and understand, as various types of accommodation fall under its bracket: B&Bs, Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs), and hostels. TA is often labelled interchangeably as temporary accommodation, emergency accommodation, council accommodation, and emergency housing, which raises the question: is there a difference and how would we describe it?

In this (slightly-longer than usual) blog, we give our insights into the confusing nature of temporary accommodation with as little jargon as possible.

What is temporary accommodation for people experiencing homelessness

Temporary accommodation is temporary housing for people who are experiencing homelessness while their local council helps them to find a more permanent solution. People placed in TA often have few to no tenancy rights because the accommodation is intended to be a short-term solution. However, many now live in TA for years and limited rights they have in their housing means they can be moved at short notice to another accommodation, and can even be placed out-of-area.

TA is currently unregulated, which is causing an inconsistency of standards across the country; while some is good quality, we know from our research and Shelter’s latest report that thousands of people are living in properties that are unsafe and unsuitable for habitation.

What is emergency accommodation

Emergency accommodation (EA) is where people who are experiencing homelessness are put by the council while they decide whether that individual or family are owed a main housing duty (a legal responsibility of the local authority to provide accommodation until permanent housing is found). EA is primarily used as a stopgap while people wait for a longer-term room in TA, and therefore usually precedes a TA placement.

EA can include units that are also used as TA such as hotels and B&Bs, but in theory, stays in EA are intended to be much shorter than TA. For example, the legal limit for any household placed in a B&B is 6 weeks. We know many placements will extend beyond this time, although there has been significant work in recent years by local authorities to reduce the amount of families in B&Bs for more than 6 weeks.

The allocation of emergency/ temporary accommodation can vary across the country and often depends on what is available on the day.

Emergency housing

Emergency housing is synonymous with temporary / emergency accommodation and refers to temporary housing given to an individual or family by their local council when someone is assessed as homeless and qualifies for help under the council’s legal responsibility. Although the term “housing” is used, people who are placed here are homeless because they do not have access to safe, secure housing of their own.

Social housing

Social housing is a type of property allocated and owned by either local authorities or housing associations. This type of housing has more affordable rents (often pegged to local incomes) and provides longer-term, more secure tenancies for their residents. The housing charity, Shelter, has a great information page that explains social housing in a lot more detail.

Temporary Accommodation and Social Housing

People experiencing homelessness live in temporary / emergency accommodation while waiting for an offer of settled accommodation. Most hope this is social housing, however due to the chronic shortage of social housing, people can be left waiting years for a social housing property of their own and if a suitable offer is made from the private rented sector, they have to accept it (Localism Act 2011).

The demand is so high, temporary accommodation is often used to fill this gap in social housing and costs councils over 1.6 billion a year, with most of it going to private providers / landlords. The government needs to build more social housing.

Unsuitable temporary accommodation

The absence of regulation in TA means it is often unsuitable for people’s needs. Many properties are unsafe, lack basic amenities such as hot water or a working cooker, and can be inaccessible for people with disabilities. The APPG for Households in Temporary Accommodation is calling on the government to introduce a national regulator with powers to enforce minimum standards and intervene when they are not met.

Unsupported temporary accommodation (UTA)

Unsupported Temporary Accommodation (UTA) is not an official term but a term used by Justlife to describe a housing situation for which we have found no other definition. UTA is private accommodation in which households have little to no housing rights and have not been placed by the local authority.

People living in UTA are often missed in official homelessness statistics and are not always considered homeless, even though they do not have access to safe, secure and settled housing. They are typically ‘non-priority-need’ with limited access to local authority support to find a home. Almost any property-type can be UTA, however it is typically a Bed & Breakfast (B&B), hostel or guesthouse.

We have seen, especially in Greater Manchester, the number of UTA options decrease in recent years. We believe this is primarily because of the move from Housing Benefit to Universal Credit, and the fact that many of these places could no longer receive higher rent rates under Universal Credit. If you would like to read more about our research into UTA you can find it here.

Wider forms of hidden homelessness

To make matters even more confusing, there are other forms of hidden homelessness that people experience that are not included in official figures or fall under different ‘categories’ so are perhaps seen differently. Sofa Surfing is where someone is homeless but is staying with friends, family or acquaintances. There is no way of knowing how many people are or have been sofa surfing at any given time.

In addition, ‘Temporary Accommodation’ or housing that is called and/or understood as TA can be provided by other parts of local and national government. Adult Social Care and Children’s Social Care can put individuals and families into TA under certain legal rules, but, even though this could sometimes end up in the same building as the TA discussed above, it would not show up in any statistics. Similarly, the Home Office can use some of the same buildings used as TA to house asylum seekers.

Finally, we also sometimes hear of ‘non-statutory temporary accommodation.’ This refers to places where people experiencing homelessness usually end up staying when they do not meet the criteria for legal help from their local council”, or when they have not gone through the typical process of presenting as homeless to their local authority. It could be independently run hotels/ hostels, squats or unsupported temporary accommodation. These non-official routes into different types of accommodation are all examples of hidden homelessness, which also includes people who sofa surf or sleep in a car.

See our temporary accommodation information hub for more resources on this subject.