The truth about homelessness and street deaths

4 Mar 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Mar 2016

The recent death of a homeless man on the streets of Belfast has caused a furore and a flurry of emergency meetings as the authorities work out a response. 

Media coverage and political comment suggests that the cause is a lack of accommodation Scope’s research suggests otherwise.

Last year 19, 621 people households declared themselves homeless, according to the official statistics compiled by the Department of Social Development. These referrals are for households, not individuals, and as around 50% of the number are single, it is fair to assume that up to 30,000 people were made homeless last year.

There are many reasons for people losing their homes: in the past the biggest single factor was relationship or family breakdown: not just couples separating, but people also leaving shared homes or in the case of younger people, their families. Last year they accounted for around 24% of the total.

More disturbingly this is not the most common reason for homelessness any longer: 29% are because they are living in conditions deemed to be “unreasonable accommodation” This could be because of overcrowding, under occupation of a property, because rents are too high and unaffordable, or because people have had their homes repossessed by lenders. We can expect this to become a growing trend.

Those who declare themselves homeless then have to satisfy four tests before they can be deemed “full duty applicants” and thus automatically qualify for accommodation.

First the reason for their homelessness must be “genuine” for example they have been given notice to quit, a relationship has broken down, or their house is uninhabitable.

Second that they have neither done anything or omitted to do anything to cause their homelessness, like not paying their rent for example.  (Intentionality Test)

Third that they must be vulnerable. For example they are victims of violence, or have young children living with them, or suffer mental ill health.  (Priority Need)

Finally they must be eligible for entitlement, for example asylum seekers or those the subject of an ASBO do not count.  

Last year, of the 19.621 households, 11,061 were accepted as full duty applicants and provided with accommodation. Males aged between 25-55 are the grouping most likely to miss out.

So what happened to those people? They can still qualify for help and advice: bad debtors can be helped onto a debt management plan, lists of private landlords and appropriate temporary accommodation can be supplied. Others go their own way, there’s a growing and disturbing trend towards “sofa surfing”, for example.

So how many of these people actually end up sleeping rough?

The number is actually surprisingly low.

Last year the Housing Executive carried out a comprehensive audit of Belfast City centre to uncover the facts.  The findings are yet to be published, though this is likely to happen in the next few weeks. But top lines were given to Belfast City Council’s People and Communities Committee

There is a reasonably sizeable “street community”, for want of a better description, in Belfast.

However many of those who drink, abuse drugs or beg in the streets do not sleep rough and the vast majority are there on a one-off or occasional basis.

The survey discovered that over the time period there were 42 people who frequently engaged in what it describes as “street activities” and occasionally rough sleeping.  Most of those have beds to go to but choose not to.

On any given night when the survey was being conducted there were six rough sleepers in Belfast city centre. Interestingly of the last four people to die on the streets whilst rough sleeping three had beds to go to.

The research therefore suggests that the issue is not so much to do with having no beds for the individuals involved, but to help them to avoid making what Ricky Rowledge, CEO of the Northern Ireland Council for the Homeless calls “poor judgement calls. “

The sad reality is that the individuals involved are amongst the most vulnerable in society: all too often suffering mental ill health, drug or alcohol addiction or all three. So it is not at all uncommon for people in this most vulnerable category to choose to spend time with friends, street drinking or taking legal or illegal substances and then either choosing not to, or proving incapable of finding their way back to their accommodation.

So it is not necessarily beds that are required but help from other agencies: health workers, mental health practitioners addiction services and the like. And the most important challenge will be for these services to co-ordinate effectively with the Housing Executives and homeless charities to identify and tend to what is an extremely vulnerable and often elusive group.

There is also a radical step that could be taken: the reintroduction of vagrancy laws. This, however, would be highly contentious as it brings with it the prospect of criminalising people who are often suffering from serious medical and mental health conditions, with all that implies about their human rights. Therefore any move in that direction would require enforcement to be balanced by care and support.   

It is quite right that the authorities should be seeking to treat street deaths with all the urgency they can summon. But it is important that they identify the real problem and address it: the issue is primarily behavioural and not to do with the number of available temporary beds.

Doubtless they will seriously consider a scheme which is now widespread across Europe called Housing First which places very vulnerable and disruptive clients in their own homes with intensive support. Evidence suggests that this is effective, but very expensive.


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