Homelessness is more than one issue
The idea of homelessness conjures up one image in particular. Someone in a sleeping bag – whether real or makeshift – lying in the doorway of a city centre shop.
The situation is devastating and the cumulation of factors leading to that situation is bound to be equally so.
The Guardian newspaper is writing a series of articles on homelessness, one of which focuses on the death of 32-year-old Catherine Kenny. The Downpatrick woman “died alone in the doorway of a derelict shop just metres from Belfast’s magisterial City Hall.” The article is a difficult read, including extensive conversations with Ms Kenny’s sister, and is an unflinching look at how one person, due to myriad factors, can spiral downwards into tragedy.
Ms Kenny died in early Spring in 2016, and was the fifth person to die on Belfast’s streets that year. Anyone who comes to be in such circumstances was almost inevitably extremely vulnerable, and suffering from a host of problems that can include mental ill health or addiction.
Rough sleeping, however, is not the whole story of homelessness. It is the bleak end of a bleak spectrum of circumstances that see individuals or whole families without their own place to call home.
In the 18 months to March of this year, 205 homeless people died in Northern Ireland - including a woman aged 101 and 25 other people over 85 – equating to around one death every two days.
Fixing this issue will be extremely difficult, because there are many ways to be and to become homeless.
The causes and manifestations of homelessness are broad. The consequences are less so.
Earlier this month the second annual NI conference on health, wellbeing and homeless took place in L’Derry. A total of 120 delegates attended Ensuring no-one falls between the gaps, which was organised by the Department of Health, Queen’s University Belfast and the Public Health Agency.
Opening the conference, Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said: “People who are homeless experience extreme health inequalities and barriers to accessing mainstream healthcare. Homeless people are ten times more likely to die than those of a similar age in the general population.
“The average age of death is a shocking 30 years lower than those who are not homeless. Homelessness is not a choice, it is a symptom of a wider societal problem which requires a partnership approach to deal with it.”
Dr Stephen Bergin, Assistant Director of Public Health at PHA said: “People experiencing homelessness are significantly more likely to experience some form of mental or physical health problem.
“At the same time, they are less likely to access Health and Social Care services as well as other public services. Recent funding has allowed real progress in providing additional easily accessible services in Belfast.”
What is homelessness?
The Simon Community NI is the largest organisation in NI devoted to tackling homelessness. It describes homelessness as “a shattering consequence of cumulative factors that can leave people feeling they have no support, options or hope.”
The organisation points out that homeless people have a far lower life expectancy than the general population, fewer education an employment opportunities, suffer from social stigmatisation and exclusion, and a large proportion of them also experience mental ill health.
“The stereotype of homelessness is someone sleeping rough on the streets. That is not the reality, particularly here in Northern Ireland. Thankfully we don’t have the same level of street homelessness experienced in other parts of the UK and Ireland, but that can sometimes mean that people underestimate the problem, are cynical about the volume of people affected by homelessness, and are somewhat indifferent to the cause that requires support now more than ever.”
Per the Simon Community NI, in 2017-18 18,180 households in NI presented as homeless to the Housing Executive, which they estimate (using an average of three people per household) to equate to around 55,000 people in total.
“Of the households presenting as homeless to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, 33% are single men with no children, the highest presenters of homelessness are males aged between 26 and 59, with a total of 4,350 cases. Being a single male who is homeless can mean that the likelihood of receiving support with housing is extremely low.
“32% of those who presented as homeless are families, meaning that there are at least 6,000 children in Northern Ireland who are living in unsuitable, unstable housing.”
Per the Simon Community: “There are many reasons why people become homeless. Unsuitable housing (23.1%) and family breakdown (20.6%) are the main causes of homelessness currently in Northern Ireland; and other factors including loss of rented accommodation (14.7%), marital/relationship breakdown (9.8%), neighbourhood harassment (8.2%) and no accommodation in Northern Ireland (7.7%). Ill mental health; rising costs of housing; bereavement; debt; and issues with addiction, and other factors are behind 15.9% of the homelessness experienced in Northern Ireland…
“A shortage of affordable housing is a key factor in the homelessness experienced in Northern Ireland. The number of applicants on the social housing waiting list in Northern Ireland on 20 March 2018 there were 36,198; with 24,148 households deemed to be in ‘housing stress’.”
The organisation also points out that there is a huge problem with “hidden homelessness”, whereby an estimated 75,000 to 136,000 adults live in concealed housing, meaning they want to live independently but have no option to do so.
“This can result in overcrowding, unsuitable living conditions, the breakdown of family relations, and homelessness as a result of tensions developing amongst adults forced to live within one household; all of which can negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health.”
The causes of homelessness are varied but many of them are interlinked.
Overcrowded homes, run-down property, the cost of the private rental market (which is rising), and family breakdown can all lead to homelessness.
Poverty and mental poor health both increase the vulnerability of individuals. At the same time, homelessness exacerbates these issues – effectively reinforcing its own circumstances.
NI’s last completed strategy to tackle homelessness covered the five years to 2017. A consultation on its replacement closed in February 2017 – the month after Stormont collapsed – and the strategy itself was published in April that year.
The latest progress update, published last month, indicates that improvements are slow. Funding is an issue. The number of households presenting as homeless has dropped by fewer than 500 in total since the implementation of the strategy (and remains above 18,000).
In their foreword, the NI Housing Executive Chair Prof. Peter Roberts and CEO Clark Bailie note they faced “another challenging year”.
The reality is they would be working in extremely trying circumstances even if Northern Ireland had a functioning Assembly and Executive. The Housing Executive is less reliant on having ministers in place than the Stormont departments but homelessness sits on top of a complex pyramid of social and economic problems and to deal with it properly requires work that cuts across a variety of sectors.
The Simon Community NI has a campaign - Every day we end homelessness - looking to highlight the issue of homelessness and create momentum towards solutions. This will be difficult without a working Assembly.
Cooperation, elimination of silo working, collaboration – these are all modern mantras of civic society. It is clear just how vital they are to tackling homelessness, a problem with all sorts of root causes that can be financial, social, familial or health related (and which also cut across the boundaries of statutory agencies).
Simon Community NI CEO Jim Dennison said: “Every day, Simon Community ends homelessness for someone, but we are only scraping the surface. It is a fallacy to think that we can end homelessness without legislative changes from a functioning Stormont and without buy-in from local councils and the wider public.”
Karen McAllister, Head of Young People Services at the organisation, said: “We only need to look towards Dublin to see a glimpse of a possible future – families living out of cars and hotel rooms while young people find shelter on the streets. If we are looking to end homelessness then we, as a society, must work to break the cycle at the earliest stages.
“To do this, we urgently need government departments to work collectively to tackle the root causes that bring people to a place of homelessness. Decent affordable housing must be at the heart of any strategy for improving the life chances of children and young people and reducing child poverty.”
The circumstances of homelessness can vary wildly between different individuals or families. However, the consequences are devastating and reducing instances of homelessness should be a priority for us all.
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