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Housing Crisis

Explainer: Why are Ireland's homeless figures on the rise again?

Homeless organisations have warned the situation will only get worse without significant intervention.

OFFICIAL HOMELESS FIGURES recently passed the 10,000 mark for the first time since before the pandemic.

Measures introduced during the Covid-19 crisis had a significant impact on family homelessness in particular and drove numbers down but as soon as restrictions lifted and those measures were rolled back, the situation began to reverse.

The statistics for April include 7,105 adults and 2,944 children. The number of families accessing emergency accommodation during this period was 1,308. There are 1,246 young people aged 18-24 in homelessness in April and this is the highest number of young people in homelessness on record.

This week The Journal‘s The Explainer podcast looked at what’s driving figures back up again – and what’s being done to address the issue.

We spoke to Mike Allen, advocacy director at Focus Ireland, who said there were big changes to the emergency accommodation provision to take account of the risk of Covid-19 infection.

“A very significant number of the emergency beds available in the Irish system are dormitories,” he explained.

“There’s been some improvement in terms of the quality of accommodation available, but still large numbers of people are in rooms of six or more. Obviously that’s a huge risk during the pandemic of spreading the illness and so on. So,what happened was the number of people in each of those dormitories was reduced.

As much as possible people were given a room on their own. That meant that we needed additional space, the local authorities used hotel rooms, but they also entered into agreements with short-term accommodation. The tourist industry had collapsed, there were a lot of people with Airbnbs or other short term accommodation that was free.

He said local authorities and NGOs also set up “shielding units” for people who had very serious health risks. 

The impact of the eviction ban

The government also introduced a rent freeze and eviction ban to prevent more people from entering homelessness during the pandemic.

Allen said that the eviction ban in particular had a significant impact on the number of families entering homelessness.

“Accommodation is the biggest single cause of family homelessness, that closed off to a very large extent and we were also able to support – with local authorities – a lot more families to move out of homelessness, so you’ve got this sort of double positive effect; fewer families coming in and more families moving out to quite a dramatic fall in family homelessness, which had a big effect on the overall figure,” he said.

However single homelessness continued to rise all the way through the pandemic.

“That’s highlighting, I think, that the cases for single people’s homelessness are different,” he said.

“Single people tend not to enter homelessness from a tenancy from which they’re evicted, they tend to enter homelessness from other forms of precarious living, whether that’s sofa surfing, or coming out of hospital or coming out of prison or coming out of other situations like a breakdown of a relationship.

So the overall picture was was positive and picture for families was positive, but behind that was a very worrying continued negative trend in terms of single persons’ homelessness.

The Explainer / SoundCloud

Reasons for entering homelessness

The reasons people are entering homelessness now are the same as they were pre-Covid, he said, and although there was a delayed impact after the rolling back of measures like the eviction ban, organisations like Focus Ireland were expecting the numbers to come back up.

He said when figures during the eviction ban are compared to recent statistics, there are around 60 families a month facing homelessness now who would not be facing homelessness if they had better protection in the private rented accommodation that they’re in.

“The two primary reasons that people become homeless from the private rented market are either can’t afford their rent or landlords are selling up and evicting them so that they can sell the property,” he said.

And then you have, if you like, social reasons or family breakdowns, relationship breakdowns, and those sort of things – that’s the third reason.


Allen said that while the eviction ban did have a positive impact, it is not the solution to homelessness. However he said there is an argument for keeping an eviction ban in place and convincing landlords to stay in the market while additional houses are built. 

He said he does not believe there is an appropriate level of urgency in taking measures to address the issue.

Government plans to build tens of thousands of new homes each year were stalled by the pandemic and he said missing the target even just one year can have devastating consequences.

“There doesn’t seem to be any solution currently being put forward by government in terms of how we are going to deal with this, and how we are going to get back on track and the consequences -it takes a long time to get momentum up on the housing system,” he said. 

Allen said the arrival of Ukrainian refugees had shown what the government can do with “wartime emergency power” that they had not been able to do before.

“And if that means that the some of the the issues which have bedevilled us for generations that have been intractable can finally been resolved, they will be resolved both for people, both the Ukrainian refugees, and for the Irish people and people living here who’ve been waiting for housing, so it could be a win-win,” he said.

“But I have yet to see what that would mean in practice.”

Allen said stricter measures around vacant properties need to be seriously considered by government now as lighter-touch policies have not worked. New policies on this should include harsh penalties so that owners are “motivated by self-interest”, he said.

He said there are a number of positive actions that are being taken by both local authorities and the government, including a commitment to end homelessness by 2030.

However he said none of this is equivalent to the scale of the challenge faced in Ireland.

“Every particular element of the programme takes much longer than was envisaged or doesn’t seem to have been particularly thought through. There is this sense of a response to the emergency and ‘we need to say what we’re doing today’, rather than looking at the longer term implications of that, he said.

That’s been true of legislation and policy as well and we don’t need policies that look good on the day, we need policies that are going to look good over the period of time that they need to apply. That will require an awful lot more ambition than currently we’ve been able to demonstrate.

Preparing for winter

Allen said many of the structures put in place to deal with Covid have been stood down “probably prematurely” considering current case numbers. 

“For vulnerable people, there are still going to be huge challenges over winter,” he said.

“So I think there will be a bit of putting back in place some of those structures as we move towards the winter.”

Allen said one problem with the winter response is that there is a greater focus on emergency accommodation as a solution.

“Focus Ireland is very clear that while emergency shelter is necessary for our homeless, one of the reasons we’re in the hole that we’re in at the moment in terms of the scale of homelessness is that our primary response to homelessness has been building more and more emergency shelters,” he said.

“For single people that were about 1800 single homeless people in 2014, and there are now over 5000. So that’s over 3000 more emergency beds. Well if we’d built 3000 one-bedroom apartments and allocated them to vulnerable people, we’d have done an awful lot better than building all those emergency beds.

“I am worried that we will revert back to crisis emergency.”

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