The many faces of homelessness in Northern Ireland

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Homelessness is a highly emotive issue and attention on the plight of those who are homeless in Northern Ireland has gained particular momentum over recent months with housing, homelessness and many other organisations working determinedly to raise awareness of the multi-dimensional nature of homelessness here.

Blurred image of multiple faces

What has become clear is that the nature of homelessness in Northern Ireland goes far beyond the visible stereotypical image of homelessness as ‘rough sleeping’. Indeed the recent Belfast Street Needs Audit revealed that the number of people sleeping rough in Belfast per night runs into single figures, which is significantly lower than many other cities in the UK. Rather, homelessness in Northern Ireland is dominated by households, particularly single males and families, who are presenting as homeless for a number of reasons e.g. the unreasonableness of existing accommodation (e.g. housing unfitness); sharing/family disputes; marital/relationship breakdown; and loss of rented accommodation. The latest NI Homelessness Monitor 2016 has also drawn attention to the extent of ‘hidden homeless’ in Northern Ireland. These are households, typically ‘sofa surfers’ and households living in severely overcrowded conditions, who tend to refrain from approaching statutory services for assistance and are therefore not included in homelessness statistics.

There are undoubtedly many faces of homelessness in Northern Ireland. Those who are either homeless, or threatened with homelessness, are a very diverse population. Access to, and experience of, housing stability, is often influenced by factors such as household composition, income and employment, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, age, disability, health status and geographical location. The complexity of homelessness is further compounded by the fact that households can have multiple identities which ideally should prompt a tailored response to their accommodation and support needs. This has been evidenced in recent years by a wealth of local research on the nature and needs of different groups of people experiencing homelessness.

For example, research reveals that:

  • Rough sleepers, those engaging in street activities and indeed many people in temporary accommodation, lead very chaotic lives and have complex multiple needs often resulting from substance misuse, mental health issues and learning disabilities. This can lead people to become ‘entrenched’ and resistant to offers of assistance. A report by the Patient Client Council confirms much of the Belfast Street Needs Audit’s findings and further highlights that many rough sleepers and people in temporary accommodation tend not to view their health as a priority. They can lack the motivation and social skills necessary to access services such as health and social care. Therefore, despite the relatively low numbers of people sleeping rough in Northern Ireland, meeting the needs of rough sleepers and other homeless people with multiple needs is resource intensive and requires a significant level of multi-agency co-ordination and innovation.
  • Young people who are homeless can have a range of complex needs resulting from mental health difficulties, family breakdown and childhood abuse. A research study by the Council for the Homeless NI emphasised the importance not only of meeting young people’s immediate housing and support needs but also ensuring that they are prepared for, and supported during, periods of independent living. It further drew attention to the potential isolation and loneliness that young people can experience whilst living independently and strongly recommended access to crisis intervention and also support to help young people build local community connections.
  • Family rejection resulting in a loss of accommodation and support networks was the most cited reason for homelessness amongst the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. This was particularly the case for young LGBT people. The study conducted by the Rainbow Project and the Council for the Homeless NI found that trans people were vulnerable to repeated episodes of homelessness and frequent moves in accommodation because of regular and sustained transphobic abuse. It recommended developing protocols to enable the assessment of LGBT social housing applicants’ individual support needs and signposting vulnerable applicants to appropriate services.
  • People with no or limited access to public funds (e.g. certain categories of non-UK nationals, asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors) are often found among the ‘hidden homeless’. A report published by the NI Human Rights Commission cites a number of case studies in which vulnerable households experiencing domestic abuse or racially motivated attacks could not be provided with an allocation of publically-funded accommodation because they have no recourse to public funds under UK-wide immigration and asylum legislation. It is likely that these households rely on accommodation and financial support from friends, family and community and voluntary organisations.
  • The housing needs of migrant workers can be diverse and a growth in migration can lead to pressure on the availability of social and private housing stock in certain geographical locations. Research commissioned by the Housing Executive highlights that seasonal or temporary workers with tied accommodation are vulnerable to homelessness when their period of employment ends. Some migrant households can have large family networks and need relatively larger properties potentially leading to severe overcrowding if there is a lack of supply.
  • A person with disabilities can experience homelessness if they reside in a property that is unsuitable for their needs and the consequences of homelessness can have a serious detrimental impact on physical and mental wellbeing. There is no ‘one size fits all approach’ for people with disabilities, the accommodation needs of older people may in many respects differ to the needs of children and young people with disabilities. Research suggests that changes in demographic trends and the prevalence of certain conditions over time (e.g. dementia; physical, sensory and learning disabilities; drug and alcohol addiction) will change the nature of accommodation needed in the future. These factors are likely to impact on the nature of homelessness and will require different housing solutions.
  • Some Offenders and Ex-offenders have complex needs resulting from multiple problems such as poor mental health, self-harm and drug and alcohol misuse. A paper by NIACRO emphasised that offenders and ex-offenders require early intervention in the form of housing and welfare advice in prisons and floating support services to sustain tenancies and assist in the transition from prison to community life.
  • A household can have a roof over their head but still be homeless. This is particularly evident in cases of domestic abuse where it can be deemed unreasonable for someone to continue to occupy their home. In many cases there are dependent children in the household and temporary accommodation can impact upon their education, physical health and emotional wellbeing.

Homelessness – the way forward?

So how should the problem of homelessness be tackled given that it is a complex and multi-layered issue? At the forefront of the Housing Executive’s new draft homelessness strategy for Northern Ireland is a recognition that the range of differences in households presenting as homeless is significant. It makes a commitment to tailor services to meet the needs of individual customers with a focus on accommodating and delivering services that take into account those differences. For example, chronic homelessness such as rough sleeping will be addressed via the continued development of the ‘Housing First’ NI pathway model.

What is very clear is that homelessness is not just a housing issue. The title of the draft strategy is ‘Ending Homelessness Together’. For this to be achieved there must be continued support from, and of, the community and voluntary sector as well as a real commitment to provide a multi-agency and inter-departmental response to addressing the multiple needs of households who are either homeless or threatened with homelessness in Northern Ireland.