Rising numbers of people in the countryside are becoming homeless in a crisis deepened by the cost-of-living crisis, a study has found.
Rough sleeping in rural areas shot up by 24 per cent in just one year, analysis of official statistics shows.
But tackling homelessness in rural areas is harder because local authorities receive 65 per cent less government funding per person than urban areas, which are themselves “chronically underfunded”, academics say.
Overall numbers of families with children in England assessed as needing help to prevent them becoming homeless or to relieve their homelessness are rising.
But high housing costs in prosperous rural areas are blamed for the “hidden” homelessness crisis, according to the report by experts at the University of Kent and the University of Southampton, on behalf of rural charities and housing associations.
The year-long study, which included a survey of 157 support workers, service providers, non-governmental organisations and shelters, found an overwhelming majority thought rural homelessness was worsening.
The survey found homelessness had increased in the past five years, according to 91 per cent of respondents in rural areas, and 83 per cent of those in rural areas said their job had become harder.
The true scale of the crisis is likely to be far higher than the official statistics, with “shame and stigma” meaning the most vulnerable are not recorded in official statistics, according to countryside charity the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Government statistics on the Homelessness Prevention Grant show urban local authorities received £7.15 per homeless person, compared with £2.50 each in rural local authorities compared on a like-for-like basis, the academics said.
Support workers reported having difficulty contacting people who are homeless in rural areas because they often sleep rough in farmland or woodland.
The researchers heard how people dug trenches in snow to sleep, went days without food, were spat on, had their tents set on fire and were mugged, causing brain injuries and teeth being knocked out.
Farmers were frequently cited as a lifeline, allowing people to pitch tents in their fields and providing clean water and tea in the morning.
Martin Collett, co-chair of the research project and chief executive of English Rural, a non-profit housing association, said: “You don’t tend to see people sleeping rough in rural areas – but they’re there, normally hidden in agricultural buildings, outhouses, sleeping rough on farmland or condemned to an insecure life of sofa-surfing.
“Because funding is so inadequate, many people are moving to urban centres for much needed support.”
After a consultation last year, the government says it has already updated the funding formula to meet demand in areas across England.
A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “Councils have a duty to ensure families are not left without a roof over their heads. We’re giving them £366m this year to help with this and the money is going to areas with the greatest need.
“The money can be used to work with landlords to prevent evictions, provide temporary accommodation or find new homes.
“Building more affordable homes is key, which is why we’re investing £11.5bn to do so and have built more than 243,000 affordable homes in rural locations since 2010.
“We want planning policies and decisions to be responsive to local needs, and have consulted on how we can strengthen the role of community groups in delivering affordable housing, particularly in rural areas.”
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