Image of a homeless person rough sleeping

Anthropology: Homelessness in Scotland (UK) and its Implications on Society

Homelessness is a complex social issue that is notoriously difficult to quantify and define. It is an invisible problem as there is a range of types of homelessness, and rough sleeping is just one of them. Homelessness exists in affluent and less affluent societies and affects them on different levels. Homelessness has a wide range of implications for individual and public health, public security, and the economy. It disintegrates community life and creates social barriers. Thus, it affects the homeless and society as a whole. Unfortunately, homelessness is one of the biggest social issues in the UK, despite various attempts to prevent it. This article will look at the problem of homelessness in Scotland and some of its implications for society.

Homelessness as a social problem

Homelessness is defined as a lack of one’s own stable residence where one can sleep. The legal definition of homelessness is that a household has no home in the UK or anywhere else in the world available and reasonable to occupy. The problem of homelessness exists in most societies around the world. It affects individuals as well as wider societies and it has a multiplier effect impacting generations. Homelessness is caused by a combination of social inequalities and a lack of resources. Despite the fact that this social problem is present everywhere we go, it is invisible. This is because there are many different types of homelessness. It does not refer only to the people who are sleeping rough on the street. This makes measuring the problem very difficult.

Types of homelessness

According to the British charity for homeless people, Crisis UK, there are four types of homelessness and they include:

Rough sleeping – this form of homelessness is the most visible and dangerous. Those who are experiencing rough sleeping for a longer period of time, are likely to experience trauma, mental health issues, and drug misuse.

Statutory homelessness – this type of homelessness means that the local authority decides that a household has no legal right to occupy accommodation that is accessible and reasonable for the household to continue to live in. The local authority may provide temporary accommodation to households who meet strict criteria, allowing them to receive assistance. This is mainly for families with children.

Hidden homelessness – this includes people who are not entitled to receive help with housing or don’t approach their councils for assistance. Hidden homelessness is therefore completely neglected in the official statistics. People experiencing this form of homelessness often stay in hostels, squats, or B&Bs. Some stay in overcrowded accommodation or ‘concealed’ housing, such as couch surfing in their family or friends’ houses.

At the risk of homelessness – people fall under this form of homelessness if they are at a higher risk of being pushed into homelessness. This includes those who have low-paid jobs, live in poverty, in poor quality, or have insecure housing.

infographic on homelessness types
Rough sleeping is just the “tip of the iceberg”. Data from England, Shelter Charity (

Understanding Homelessness

Homelessness is linked to other social problems such as poverty, mental health, crime, immigration, and mobility. Therefore, homelessness is a complex issue with a range of risk factors. As a result, defining homelessness is not simple and creates many questions in relation to the complex issues surrounding it. Research offers little consensus on definitions of the homeless experience. And every study on the issue provides variations in what is meant by the concept of homelessness (Murphy and Tobin, 2011). One of the problems with definitions of homelessness is that the mainstream media and politicians have adopted a definition that ensures the lowest possible is used to count the homeless (Glasser et al., 2001).

Anyone can experience homelessness. Individuals, children, or families, men and women. This in itself creates various problems as the experiences of homeless women differ in many ways from the experiences of homeless men. And the experiences of homeless children differ from the experiences of homeless adults. People may be currently without housing or considered eligible for homeless services if they are predicted to be without housing in the next 14 days due to, for example, eviction. Similarly, people who are living life-threatening situations such as domestic violence are also considered eligible for homeless services. This results in a wide range of severity of homelessness. From people who are moving their houses twice within 60 days to people living on the streets (Understanding Homelessness).

Explanations of homelessness

The issue of homelessness can be understood from various perspectives. Different social science disciplines provide different explanations of why homelessness exists. Psychology focuses on the individual experiences of the homeless. Sociologists highlight the influence of human social behavior and the interactions of social groups, individuals, and institutions and how they affect each other. Meanwhile, Anthropologists study how people live and interact with their social and physical environments, how culture influences human beings and vice versa, and how all of this evolved over time. A combination of all of these perspectives can provide significant insight into what fears drive someone to walk past homeless people without making eye contact. It can offer explanations for how the lack of affordable housing contributes to homelessness. Or how do the homeless adapt to their surroundings in order to survive.

Risk factors and reasons why someone may become homeless

The reasons why someone may become homeless range from the system to the individual. The risk factors of homelessness are complex, but it is often a combination of issues within the system and individuals that lead to homelessness (Understanding Homelessness).

  1. Lack of affordable housing
  2. Suffering economy
  3. Lack of supportive and health services

The above factors can cause people to not be able to:

  1. Be unable to afford to house even when employed
  2. Live in poverty even when employed
  3. Be unable to find work, even if able to work
  4. Struggle with personal hardship
  5. Be unable to work and suffer from physical and/or mental health issues
Statistical data on main reasons for homelessness in Scotland
Main reasons for homelessness in Scotland (2019-2020) (

Homelessness in the past

Homelessness has been existing in the UK for as long as historical records have been kept. According to historical sources, in the 7th century, the English king Hlothaere passed laws to punish vagrants (Issues Online, 2015). The ‘vagrant’ or ‘vagabond’ comes from Latin and means a wandering of the disposed. In Victorian times, the “wandering vagrant tramp” described a person who moved around the country, often an artisan and skilled trade union worker (History Extra). It is hard to estimate the number of vagrants, but some sources suggest that in the 16th century, there were 20,000 or more (Issues Online, 2015). The numbers have risen and fallen due to various forms of prevention being introduced throughout history. In the early days, vagrants were punished. In the 16th century, however, the state began to attempt to house them and train them for a profession (Issues Online, 2015).

Eventually, in the 1870s, tramping became associated with unskilled workers moving between locations. Historical evidence suggests that there have always been labels used to describe homeless people. This complicated the responses to homelessness and made the definition and therefore, prevention of homelessness, difficult. In addition to this, history shows that measuring homelessness has also always been a challenge. This, in turn, creates challenges in relation to understanding the causes of homelessness and prevents better insights into the issue of homelessness (History Extra).

Black and white image of old homeless shelter in London
Homeless shelter with four penny coffin beds in London, 1990s. Homeless people could stay at a coffin house for four pennies (

History of homelessness and housing crisis in Scotland

Scotland has a long history of extremely poor living conditions in urban areas that forced thousands of Scots to emigrate to the New World after 1830. The Highlanders were evicted from their homes as the economy collapsed and the population kept rising. In the lowlands, emigration was driven by the desire to improve one’s living standards.

In 1919, the Government’s first Housing Act was passed to improve terrible and inadequate living conditions for people living cramped in unsanitary spaces without running water, toilets, and electricity. Glasgow had a housing crisis with some of the worst conditions in the UK. The housing crisis and unemployment drove many people in Scotland into homelessness.

In 1945, overcrowding, poor hygiene, and generally poor living conditions reached their peak. The government’s attempt to address the problem focused on building 50,000 homes every year to get people out of the slums. This helped temporarily, but it did not get rid of the problem completely. Large schemes were seen as too far out of town and with too few local amenities. The problem of overcrowded houses in Scotland continued well into the 60s. In 1961, 11,000 homes in Glasgow alone were reported as unfit for habitation.  However, public support began to increase.

In the late 1960s, Shelter Scotland was formed after the scale of the housing emergency was alerted as massive. Homelessness housing organizations across the UK demanded immediate attention to these problems and helped to create changes in the legislation affecting homelessness and bad housing in Scotland.

Black and white image of a family in 1919 Scotland living in poor housing
The housing crisis in Glasgow was first addressed in 1919 with the first Housing Act to improve poor living conditions (

Homelessness in Scotland today

Homelessness in Scotland is still considered a serious social issue that needs attention. The Scottish Government and groups calling for action on ending homelessness continue to work together to prevent homelessness and reduce the numbers of people living on the streets and in inadequate housing. Although the number of homeless people in Scotland is decreasing, it should be remembered that homelessness is complex, and counting the number of homeless is very challenging. According to the Scottish Government’s data, between 2020 and 2021, there were 42,149 people in homeless households in Scotland – 30,345 adults and 11,804 children. It is believed, however, that these numbers are undercounted and many people who are homeless tend to ‘hide’ during enumerations (Williams, 2010).

In addition to this, headcounts of rough sleepers are problematic, because inaccessible or dangerous places (where rough sleepers tend to live) are often ignored. This leads to difficulties with the visibility of homelessness and the identification of errors related to measuring it.

Despite the long struggle with homelessness, today Scotland has some of the most progressive homelessness rights in the world. One of Scotland’s cities most affected by homelessness has been Glasgow. In recent years, Glasgow has made significant progress in tackling street homelessness and effectively reduced rough sleeping by 52% since November 2018. According to research, the biggest reason for this progress is the move away from a one-size-fits-all approach, toward more specialized interventions which target specific subgroups (Young, 2022). However, in the first quarter of this year, 2022, homelessness applications in Scotland increased again by 16.5 % (Learmonth, 2022).

a coloured image of a homeless man rough sleeping in Glasgow
A man rough sleeping in Argyle Street (

The issues with the criminalization of homelessness

For nearly 200 years, parts of UK legislation, such as The Vagrancy Act, continue to criminalize rough sleepers, pushing them further into poverty. According to such  Acts, introduced centuries ago in the summer of 1824, it is an offense in England and Wales to beg or sleep rough. The Vagrancy Act is a way to punish the homeless and essentially criminalize homelessness. It does not get to the root causes of why people are homeless and does nothing to help people escape poverty and homelessness (Centre Point).  The UK Government recognizes that the Act is no longer fit for purpose and fails to address modern social problems. The Westminster government said that the Vagrancy Act should be scrapped and removed from the statute book (Geraghty, 2022).

Culture of homelessness

Anthropologists study the culture of homelessness and its roots by, for example, tracking homeless people over time (Ravenhill, 2012). In anthropology, the culture of homelessness means that homeless individuals share beliefs, values, norms, behaviors, similar structures, and economic situations. In addition to this, homelessness can also be perceived as part of a culture (Flaskerud and Strehlow, 2008). In some societies, such as the US or the UK, homelessness has existed for centuries and has been accepted as part of the culture. This is because the experience of homelessness is not isolated but rather characterized as a web of interactions with other homeless people. To some, the homeless subculture provides a sense of belonging (Johnson and Middendorp, 2010).

Cultural significance of homelessness in anthropology

Anthropology, like many other social science disciplines, explains the relationship between human behavior and the social environment, and the interaction between human beings. In terms of poverty and homelessness, anthropologists examine the roots of those issues and attempt to explain and understand how they are perceived across cultures (Frerer, 2008). In the UK, each country measures and responds to homelessness in different ways. In addition to this, according to The 2021 Homelessness Monitor Scotland, the rate of ‘core homelessness’ (including rough sleeping, using inadequate accommodation such as B&B, or sofa surfing) was almost twice as high in England than in Scotland (Scottish Housing News, 2021). Homelessness is, therefore, culturally significant, because it varies in many ways across cultures and societies.



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Crisis UK. “About Homelessness”. Available:

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Frerer, K. (2008). “An Anthropological View of Poverty”. Available:

Glasser, I., Bridgeman, R., and Drozdow, D. (2001). “Braving the Street: The Anthropology of Homelessness”. Available:

Geraghty, L. (2022). “The Vagrancy Act: What is it? And Why is it Being Scrapped?”. Available:

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Issues Online (2015). “History of Homelessness”. Available:

Johnson, G., and Middendorp, Ch. (2010). The Culture of Homelessness”. Housing, Theory and Society. Vol. 27. Routledge. Available:

Learmonth, A. (2022). “Homelessness Applications Jump in First Four Months of 2022”. Available:

Murphy, J., F., and Tobin, K. J. (2011). “Homelessness Comes to School”. 1st Ed. Corwin: Thousand Oaks, California.  Available:

Ravenhill, M. (2012). “The Culture of Homelessness”. Available:

Scottish Housing News (2021). “Worst Forms of Homelessness ‘Less Common in Scotland Than England'”. Available:

Understanding Homelessness. “The Issue of Modern Homelessness is Broad and Complex, Affecting Too Many of Our Neighbors and Communities”. Available:

Young, G. (2022). “Glasgow Makes Significant Progress on Homelessness According to Report”. Available:

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