Government ignoring Homelessness Prevention
The latest data indicate that 11,754 people, including 3,373 children, accessed emergency homeless accommodation in the week 20-26 February 2023. Family homelessness has decreased by 40 per cent (from 1,130 families in July 2016 to 1,609 in February 2023) since the beginning of the previous housing strategy, Rebuilding Ireland, and by 60 per cent since the introduction of Housing for All in September 2021. These are the ‘official’ data on homelessness. They do not include those staying with family and friends, they do not include rough sleepers, they do not include homeless families temporarily accommodated in housing owned by their Local Authority, they do not include the women and children in domestic violence refuges, and they do not include asylum seekers in transitional accommodation. In 2019, a report commissioned by the European Commission referred to the current state of data collection on homelessness in Ireland as “statistical obfuscation if not ‘corruption’.” (Daly, 2019). This is unlikely to change with Housing for All. In July 2021, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage reclassified dependents aged 18+ as adults, thus distorting the number of adults, families, and dependants accessing homeless accommodation.
Family Hubs were first introduced in 2017 as an alternative to hotels and B&Bs. In response, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) warned of the risks: of institutionalising families and normalising family homelessness (Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, 2017). This warning was ignored, with Minister Eoghan Murphy TD urging Local Authorities to build more ‘rapid build’ Family Hubs at the Second Housing Summit in January 2018, and increased funding for Family Hubs provided in Budgets 2019 and 2020. The only mention of family hubs in the Programme for Government 2020 is a commitment to provide additional supports to students living there. A report published in April 2019 by the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) shows just how prescient IHREC’s warnings were, as children as young as 10 describe their living conditions as being “like a prison” (Ombudsman for Children's Office, 2019). While the Report does point out that Family Hubs have been found to be better than hotel rooms, in the long-term they remain an unsuitable solution.
The societal cost of homelessness is, as yet, unknown. Children born into, or at risk of, homelessness are presenting to services unable to crawl or walk due to lack of space and unable to chew food because their parents have no option but to maintain a diet of ready-made pureed food as a source of nutrition far beyond the stage when other children their age would have been weaned. This is also reflected in the concerns reported by Temple Street Children’s University Hospital in its report of 842 children being discharged into homelessness in 2018 and a study conducted by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (Royal College of Physicians Ireland, 2019). A more recent study on housing adequacy and childhood development indicates that poor quality housing is associated with low socio-emotional difficulties, and for those living in social housing or living with grandparents, lower reading test scores which may be attributable to less space in which to read. Children in poorer quality housing were also more prone to accidents and injury (Laurence, Russel, & Smyth, 2023).
Time lost in the first five years of a child’s development is not easily recovered. It requires wraparound supports, including physical and speech therapies, counselling services and dieticians. It was therefore disappointing that no provision for Housing First for Families was made in the Housing for All Strategy.
At the other end of the lifecycle, the number of people aged 65 and above who are homeless has doubled since the introduction of Rebuilding Ireland (from 83 in July 2016 to 167 in February 2023), and increased by 30 per cent since September 2021, although there were fluctuations during that period. While there is a relatively low instance of homelessness among adults aged 65+, the rate of increase since the inception of the previous housing strategy is concerning. Frailty is often a challenge that comes with ageing and is exacerbated by poor living conditions.
Homelessness is becoming normalised. According to the Homelessness Quarterly Progress Report (October to December 2022), 53 per cent of all single homeless households, similar to the year before, while 64 per cent of all family households accessing emergency accommodation had been doing so for more than six months, an increase from 58 per cent the previous year (Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, 2023c).
The most recent rough sleeper count, taken in November 2022, showed 91 persons sleeping rough in Dublin over the course of the week of the count, down from 94 in October of the previous year. According to the report of the Dublin Regional Homelessness Executive:
- The majority of the people confirmed as rough sleeping were male, Irish and aged between 26-45 years.
- 79 per cent were linked with one of the four Dublin local authorities.
- 24 per cent were using tents and 76 per cent were not.
- 12 individuals (14 per cent) were found rough sleeping in both the Winter 2022 and Spring 2022 counts. A number of these are being targeted for a Housing First response, which will provide them with permanent housing and visiting supports to help them sustain their home.
- 1 individual (1 per cent) was recorded as rough sleeping and having an active tenancy compared to the April 2022 count where 9 individuals (13 per cent) were in tenancy.
- In the November 2022 count, 29 individuals (33 per cent) had an Emergency Accommodation booking they did not access over the count week. A further 7 individuals (8 per cent) accessed Emergency Accommodation during the November 2022 count week.
- 53 individuals (61 per cent) had a booking for Emergency Accommodation at some stage in the three months prior the count, of which 29 individuals (33 per cent) did not present (i.e. were no shows).
In the breakdown of Specific Accommodation Requirements contained in the Summary of Social Housing Needs Assessments, the proportion of households citing homelessness as their basis of need increased from 10.7 per cent in 2021 to 11.6 per cent in 2022 (Housing Agency, 2023). There were 6,700 households in this situation in 2022, an increase of 40 per cent since 2017 when 4,765 households reported homelessness as their main need. Even with the continued decrease in official numbers in need of social housing, the homelessness crisis is undeniable and must be addressed.
Financial Costs of Homelessness
While decreasing since its peak in 2019, between 2014 and 2022, €1.16 billion has been spent by Local Authorities on emergency accommodation alone. Expenditure in this area peaked in 2022, at €213 million, the highest since 2019 when it was €183 million, and an increase of almost five hundred per cent on the cost of emergency accommodation in 2014. This compares to a spend on homelessness prevention and tenancy sustainment of just €15.6 million (Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, 2023). Budget 2023 increased spending on homelessness services. While this is currently necessary, inadequate resources are being allocated to homelessness prevention.
In 2022, Local Authorities spent almost 14 times more on emergency accommodation than homelessness prevention.