Are there 100,000 adults in Northern Ireland who have no home?
To mark World Homeless Day on 10 October 2017, the Simon Community NI launched an awareness campaign that included posters with the claim that 100,000 adults in Northern Ireland have no home.
Jim Dennison, the Chief Executive of Simon Community NI, said: “This alarming figure was highlighted in the latest Homeless Monitor for Northern Ireland, a report commissioned annually by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, University of New South Wales, and Heriot Watt University in Scotland.” He added: “The reality is that as many as 136,000 adults in Northern Ireland are living without a home of their own, often sharing with family or friends, because they are often not seen or recorded on official statistics.”
This claim was repeated by the Simon Community in an online article: “During 2017, we highlighted that an estimated 100,000 adults in Northern Ireland are living in hidden homelessness.”
In Northern Ireland the body that is legally responsible for helping homeless people and preventing homelessness is the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE). It acknowledges that homelessness does not just refer to people sleeping on the streets. Its website advises: “Even if you have a roof over your head, you may still be homeless.” It defines homelessness as:
- sleeping on the streets
- staying with friends or family who have told you to leave
- staying in a hostel
- staying in a bed and breakfast
- living in very overcrowded conditions
- at risk of violence if you stay in your home
- living in poor conditions that are damaging your health
- living in a house that is unsuitable for you
The NIHE funds the charity Housing Rights to write and publish housingadviceNI, a website that provides reliable independent housing advice and information to the public in Northern Ireland. According to Housing Rights, to be classified as legally homeless claimants need to pass four tests. The first of these tests is homelessness. The other tests are eligibility, priority need, and intentionality.
Statistics on homelessness are collected annually by the NIHE for the Department for Communities (DfC), a department of Northern Ireland’s devolved government. The Northern Ireland Housing Statistics 2016-17 report states that a total of 18,573 households presented as homeless to the NIHE in 2016-17, with 11,889 (64%) accepted as passing the four homelessness tests.
The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) made reference to these figures in its report, Homelessness in Northern Ireland (2017). But this NIAO report was critical of the methods used and the types of data collected by NIHE. The report stated: “Data sets and statistics on homelessness that are published by the Department are less comprehensive than those published in other jurisdictions” and “We found weaknesses in analysis, interpretation and presentation of the data that NIHE collects”. The NIAO has called on the NIHE to expand the number of published datasets and statistics.
The Homeless Monitor: Northern Ireland 2016 characterised the claim that 100,000 adults in Northern Ireland have no home as an estimate: “It is estimated that there are between 76,000 and 136,000 adults currently living as concealed households in Northern Ireland who would prefer to live independently.” It bases this estimate on “a number of large-scale/household surveys”, which reveal “concealed households; households who are sharing accommodation; and overcrowded households”. Specifically, it refers to “potential” hidden homelessness, and states, “Not everyone living in these situations will be homeless, but these phenomena are indicative of the kinds of housing pressures that may be associated with hidden homelessness.”
The Homeless Monitor estimates that in Northern Ireland there were 164,000 concealed potential households, of three types:
- Couples/lone-parent families living with other households: 6,400 households
- Other one-person units (e.g. students and young people living in flat shares (private renting)): 52,000 households
- Non-dependent adult children living in parental households: 111,000 households
Image source: The Homeless Monitor: Northern Ireland 2016 (p. 40)
Of these 164,000 concealed potential households, the Homeless Monitor makes two further estimations: (1) the presence of multiple concealed individuals in some households; and (2) the likelihood that many in these concealed potential households do not want or expect to move in the immediate future.
For the latter two types of concealed potential households (one-person and non-dependent adult children), the preference to move/live separately is estimated to be 50% in England and 26-39% in Northern Ireland.
Here, the report states that it does not have full survey data for Northern Ireland, and it relies on a special question in the English Housing Survey as well as data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study. The report concludes:
“Given that there is some uncertainty about this factor, we suggest that the number of separate adults currently concealed in Northern Ireland but preferring to live separately would lie in the range from 76,000 to 136,000 (equivalent overall to between 10% and 18% of all households in Northern Ireland), reflecting the range of estimates of proportions who would want to move.”
Dennison acknowledged these qualifications in his article in the November 2017 edition of The View magazine: “A recent academic estimation of hidden homelessness, i.e. those who are technically homeless but have not declared themselves as being so, indicates that there could be as many as 136,000 adults currently in that position.” [italics applied].
The NIHE remarked upon hidden homelessness in its publication, Homelessness Strategy for Northern Ireland: 2017-22. It cited the above Homeless Monitor report as well as a paper by the University of York, which explained: “These [hidden homeless] populations are inherently difficult to count and no country or region [in the European Union] has entirely robust or complete data on these groups.”
Nonetheless, the NIHE stated: “It is necessary to ensure that these ‘hidden households’ are provided with the means to access the housing and support services that they require.” The NIHE plans to achieve this through the implementation of a Housing Solutions and Support programme (akin to Housing Options programmes in England, Scotland, and Wales), which aims to offer support to those at risk of becoming (statutory) homeless. Furthermore, “improvements in data gathering and sharing through the lifetime of this strategy will provide the Housing Executive with more robust data on the potential for hidden homelessness in Northern Ireland, allowing for more accurate quantifying of the issue”.
Meanwhile, Dennison informed FactCheckNI that the Simon Community has applied for funding for a research project, to be undertaken by Ulster University, to better quantify hidden homelessness in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland government policy plans to improve the supply of suitable housing through Indicator 8 in the draft Programme for Government. The lead measure is the number of households in “housing stress”: applicants on the Social Rented Sector Waiting List who have 30 or more points under the Common Selection Scheme. DfC statistics published by NISRA state that there were 37,611 household applicants; of these 23,694 household applicants were deemed to be housing stress on 31 March 2017. We were unable to find data that informs us about the number of occupants per household application. NISRA has calculated a Northern Ireland average household size of 2.57, but we couldn’t find information about how this ratio relates to household applicants (i.e. whether this would be an under- or over-estimation of individuals in household stress).
Statutory homelessness is clearly defined by the relevant agency, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which applies tests to applications to determine appropriate assistance.
Hidden homelessness is a similar concept, with campaigners seeking to measure its impact on housing pressures.
In regards to the claim that there are 100,000 adults in Northern Ireland with no home, this figure was explicitly taken from The Homeless Monitor report, which offered it as a suggested estimation and with considerations (acknowledging the lack of survey data in calculating its estimations). The Simon Community NI presented this estimation without qualification as a headline fact on its outdoor poster advertising and some of its online messaging, which could be construed as misleading; elsewhere the claim is made with qualification (i.e. “could be” not “are”).
Furthermore, the majority (111,000) of the estimated 164,000 concealed potential households is represented by non-dependent (adult) children living in the parental household. Under the Homeless Monitor report’s definition, such individuals qualify as potential hidden homeless, but unless their parents told them that they are no longer welcome to stay, such individuals would not qualify as statutory homeless.
There is an opportunity to learn more about potential hidden homelessness through the delivery and monitoring of the NIHE’s programme, Homelessness Strategy for Northern Ireland: 2017-22, as well as by academic research.