Homelessness is many different problems
Housing stress in Northern Ireland is on the rise. This will lead to more and more people being homeless. There is no single fix – easing this problem requires several different approaches.
Homelessness is not one, single challenge.
There are many different types of homelessness and, even in cases with similar circumstances, underlying causes can be very different.
This makes solving homelessness – or, perhaps more accurately, easing it – anything but a simple task.
Northern Ireland’s lack of social housing has long been one issue. Demand for social housing has been growing steadily for decades. In 2002-03, around 26,000 households were on waiting lists. Last June, that figure was around 45,000, an increase of over 70%.
The number of households in housing stress (where the cost of housing is high relative to household income) has also risen significantly, from 13,000 to 31,000, an increase of almost 140%.
Communities Minister Deidre Hargey has made the construction of more social housing one of her chief policy aims. This will help, but housing is only one aspect of homelessness and building any home takes time. Building thousands, or even tens of thousands, is a long-term measure.
Last month, Homeless Connect, the representative body for the homelessness sector in Northern Ireland, launched its manifesto ahead of this year’s Assembly elections, with a series of commitments it would like to see made by politicians.
These policy asks cut across several areas, and include investment in housing, stronger rights and protections for people experiencing homelessness, better support services (and greater support for those services) – and “a standalone, specific housing outcome” in the new Programme for Government (PfG) “with emphasis on the prevention and reduction of homelessness”.
Mark Baillie, Public Affairs and Policy Officer for Homeless Connect, told Scope that the working definition of homelessness is wider than people might think, and is designed to encompass everyone who might need help finding or keeping a suitable place to live.
“In Northern Ireland, we legally define homelessness as people who are homeless and don’t have a roof over their head; people who are living in a home that it is not reasonable to occupy; and those who are at risk of homelessness – meaning they have a significant chance of losing their home in the next 28 days.
“This is because we want to stop people from reaching the point where they literally do not have a roof over their heads.”
This means homelessness could mean someone who has fallen out with family and has to leave home, it could be a family that has been asked to leave their rented home and is unable to secure a new place, or it could mean someone whose current home is no longer suitable for their needs or has become unsafe.
And, of course, the definition also takes in the most extreme examples of homelessness, with people spending nights on the streets.
“Unfortunately, some individuals feel they have no viable alternative to sleeping rough. Some may only sleep rough for one night while there is a relatively small cohort who have become entrenched in rough sleeping.
“There is a disconnection between what most people think about homelessness, and what it actually is. It can mean someone who is sofa surfing, a family placed in temporary accommodation by the Housing Executive, and it can mean people on the streets.”
Furthermore, while the current system is designed to assist anyone who needs help in finding or keeping a suitable place to live, not everyone who needs that help is eligible and some people who are eligible may struggle to access the support to which they are entitled.
The pandemic – a temporary change?
Mr Baillie told Scope that Covid-19 has changed demands on the homelessness sector, but that this might not indicate any fundamental change in the underlying causes of homelessness in Northern Ireland. Instead, it might simply be that people are behaving differently because of the pandemic.
He said the number of people presenting as homeless has fallen slightly since March 2020 but, during the same period, the number of requests for emergency housing has shot up.
Normally, the chief reason provided by individuals and families looking for housing help is that their current accommodation is not reasonable. However, during the pandemic, the most common reason given is a dispute with family (or other person in a shared home).
This could mean that, because of Covid-19, hidden homelessness is now a bit less hidden, and that more people have become homeless due to family disputes, or because informal sleeping arrangements ended.
“One other thing to be aware of is that there were fewer losses of rental accommodation, with a quite substantial fall in 2020/21 compared with the previous year - and that was because of the moratorium on evictions. Notice to quit was raised to 12 weeks, and there was a period where you couldn’t evict private tenants at all.
“That’s going to become a bigger and bigger factor, particularly as the cost of living rises.”
Homeless Connect’s manifesto calls on all local political parties to make ten commitments:
- A specific PfG outcome on housing, emphasising the prevention and reduction of homelessness. This would indicate that government is taking this issue seriously. It would also provide measurable targets against which policy performance could be easily and tangibly compared.
- Reforming homelessness legislation to strengthen protections for those experiencing homeless, allow earlier interventions, and mandate Executive departments to cooperate on homelessness. The Housing Executive’s current obligations are laid out in legislation dating from 1988. Other parts of the UK have refined and improved practices since then.
- End rough sleeping. Homeless Connect’s manifesto points out that rough sleeping affects relatively few people in Northern Ireland, but adds: “One person who feels like they have no alternative but to sleep rough is one person too many. A firm commitment from the NI Executive to end rough sleeping through ensuring support is available to anyone at risk would put us on a firm footing to eliminating rough sleeping here”
- Ensure anyone at risk of homelessness gets all possible support to prevent it happening. Prevention is better than reactive measures, and the manifesto lists several areas where improved services could have positive results, ranging from counselling and mediation, to mental health support, to specialist child and youth work.
- Increase the Supporting People budget. Supporting People provides a broad range of help targeted at people who might otherwise struggle to live independently, including financial capability and social skills.
- More funding and resources to expand Housing First. Housing First is an approach to helping people with “high and complex needs” to get and keep a home. Unlike many such programmes, the first step is providing someone with a home, without caveat, rather than making them fulfil certain criteria first, for example stopping the use of drugs.
- Ensure people with experience of homelessness are central to developing policy and designing services. “Service user involvement can generate unique insights on policy and services which can lead to better approaches; can mutually enrich conversations with service providers and policymakers to develop better understanding; and can empower individuals who have experienced marginalisation.”
- Introduce multi-year budgets to allow long-term planning and delivery of services. This request has been echoed across the entire third sector – and beyond – for years.
- Increase investment for new social and affordable housing. Per the report, “The reality is that it is impossible to prevent or reduce homelessness without an adequate supply of housing.”
- Reform the private rental sector so it is fit for purpose. Homeless Connect says reforms are needed in the regulatory frameworks around letting agents, fitness standards; landlord licensing, and oversight mechanisms.
Alongside the launch of their manifesto, Homeless Connect highlighted the views of Nikki, a woman who experienced homelessness and is now, thankfully, no longer in that situation.
She said: “As a person who has experienced homelessness, I know that decisions that the Northern Ireland Executive makes really matter. Having come through homelessness, I have experienced both the positives and negatives of the homelessness system as it stands.
“Publicly funded services helped me to ultimately exit homelessness. However, opportunities were missed which could have helped to prevent me becoming homeless in the first place or helped me to exit homelessness sooner.
“This manifesto puts forward constructive ideas which, if adopted, would help to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place and would assist those who find themselves homeless to find long-term accommodation. In the end, homelessness is about people. It’s not just about the bricks and mortar of a building. People are diverse and complex and should not be expected to fit into a stereotype or ‘tick boxes’ to access homeless services.
“The laws and policies in this area matter because of how they impact on real people. How society treats those experiencing homelessness says a lot about who we are as a society.
“I urge our political parties to adopt policies like those set out in this manifesto which will make a real difference in preventing and reducing homelessness.”
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