Homelessness in Northern Ireland
Last week saw the launch of our seventh report as part of the UK homelessness monitors series. The programme seeks to monitor trends in homelessness, with a particular focus on the impacts of the post-2007 economic recession and housing market downturn and on-going welfare reform by the Coalition government. In addition the reports seek to track responses to homelessness in each of the UK nations, which following devolution are increasingly divergent. To date, we have published three reports tracking trends in England since 2011, and initial reports for Scotland, Wales and now Northern Ireland. The programme will continue to monitor trends over the next two years.
Last week’s report is the first to focus on homelessness in Northern Ireland, and provides a ‘baseline’ account of the situation in 2013, spanning issues of rough sleeping, temporary accommodation, statutory homelessness and ‘hidden’ homelessness. The report reveals similarities and differences between the situation in Northern Ireland and the wider UK. In terms of similarities, it highlights that the programme of welfare reform now underway across the UK (but largely yet to be implemented in Northern Ireland) risks driving up homelessness, as it does in England, Scotland and Wales. In terms of differences, there have been fewer policy and legal developments in homelessness than elsewhere (young people and care leavers are not automatically considered in priority need, for instance) and the collective impacts of welfare reform in Northern Ireland are set to be more severe than in any other country or region in the UK.
A further difference – and the finding that grabbed the headlines – lies in trends in and rates of statutory homelessness in Northern Ireland compared to the other UK nations. First, rates in statutory homelessness are higher in Northern Ireland than elsewhere (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Statutory homelessness rates across the UK, 2012/13
Second, trends in homelessness show an entirely different pattern than either of the other three UK nations. While in Great Britain the number of homelessness acceptances has fallen substantially over the past decade, the number of acceptances in Northern Ireland continued to rise until 2007, following substantial increases as housing market pressures intensified during the long economic boom. Since the post-2007 recession began, it has remained broadly stable (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Statutory homelessness in Northern Ireland compared with Great Britain
These different rates and trends are explained by two main factors. First, different administrative traditions in Northern Ireland mean that certain groups (specifically, older people in need of rehousing for health or social care reasons) are dealt with through the statutory homelessness system rather than through ‘normal’ social housing allocations system. Second, and crucially, levels of statutory homelessness have fallen substantially in England and Wales – and more recently in Scotland – as a result of the implementation of the homelessness prevention/Housing Options model. It seems likely that a Scottish-style Housing Options approach will be developed in Northern Ireland in the near future and the next Northern Irish homelessness monitor offers the opportunity to track developments in this area.
These similarities and differences between NI and the other UK nations are likely to shift and evolve over the next few years, not least because this is a time of intense activity with respect to both housing and homelessness policy in Northern Ireland, with significant reforms in relation to social housing allocations, supporting people and homelessness services likely to be initiated in the near future. As many of the speakers at the launch of the report commented, there is much uncertainty about the direction of travel to be expected in Northern Ireland over the coming years and much still to play for those seeking to improve responses to homelessness and housing need.
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