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FactCheck: Does Ireland really have a low rate of homelessness by international standards?

The Taoiseach and Housing Minister have both made the claim in recent weeks.

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AN TAOISEACH LEO Varadkar made headlines over the weekend when he said that Ireland has a low level of homelessness when compared with other countries.

Varadkar came in for criticism from homelessness NGOs and opposition politicians for stating that homelessness was low here when compared to Ireland’s “peer countries”.

But what is Ireland’s actual homelessness rate and how do we measure up internationally?

Claim: Ireland has a low level of homelessness when compared to other nations within the EU or OECD*

*TheJournal.ie narrowed the claim to these countries for reasons explained below.

Verdict: UNPROVEN

  • Due to significant differences in the methodologies and approaches used in measuring homelessness, it is very difficult to compare figures in any meaningful way across different nations
  • While reports referenced below show Ireland having a low rate of homelessness within certain categories, they are based off old data
  • As well as this, Ireland’s definition of homelessness is significantly narrower than many EU and OECD countries, making direct comparison impossible

We will be presenting an overview of this FactCheck on the Pat Kenny Show tonight, TV3, 10pm

The FactCheck

What was said

Speaking to reporters at the Fine Gael conference over the weekend, Leo Varadkar responded to a question from TheJournal.ie about Ireland’s rising homelessness numbers: “We are actually a country by international standards compared with our peers that has a low level of homelessness,” the Taoiseach said.

They’re the stats and we can provide them for you and that of course is a good thing. It’s a good thing that in Ireland, we’ve a low level of homelessness compared to our peer countries.

Varadkar later tweeted that he had been asked a question about Ireland “having one of the highest homelessness levels”.

“We don’t by international comparison. That’s a fact,” the Taoiseach said.

TheJournal.ie had been investigating the claim as it had been made previously by Varadkar and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.

Announcing the housing budget on 10 October, Murphy said Ireland’s rate of homelessness was “low by international standards, which is a good thing”. He and Taoiseach Varadkar have repeated the claim a number of times since.

In October, Varadkar said in a speech that homelessness in Ireland is “low by international standards”. Murphy made a similar statement last week at the launch of the Peter McVerry Trust’s annual report. He also repeated the claim on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ1 on Monday.

Junior Minister at the Department of Housing, Damien English, referenced the claim again in the Dáil yesterday, adding that media coverage of the homelessness crisis is “damaging to Ireland’s international reputation”.

The facts

FactCheck contacted the Housing Department and the Government Press Office for the figures they used to back up the statements made by their public representatives.

One report was provided by the Housing Department which looked at homelessness across the European Union. The department also provided links to individual data for a number of EU countries.

(You can view a brief analysis from TheJournal.ie of this data in an additional post here)

A second report was provided by the Government Press Office – this report looked at levels of homelessness within the population of 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. For the purpose of this FactCheck, we will regard “peer countries” as those within the EU and the OECD, as set out in the two reports supplied by government.

A spokesperson from the Housing Department said: “The prevalence of homelessness can be difficult to compare at international level because of the wide ranging variations in availability, categorisation and quality of data.

However it is clear from even the most perfunctory examination that Ireland’s rate of homelessness (i.e. number of persons sleeping rough or residing in emergency accommodation) is low by international standards, including within the EU.”

FactCheck will first look at figures for homeless people in Ireland, before going on to compare it to data from other countries, using the reports as a road map.

Homelessness in Ireland 

When media, politicians and commentators refer to the number of homeless people living in Ireland, they are usually referring to the number of people (adults and children) staying in State-funded emergency accommodation (hotels, hostels, etc) on a specific week every month.

These figures are released each month by the Housing Department. Under Section 10 of the Housing Act (1988), the department provides various charities with the funding to house homeless people. The numbers provided by the department, then, are all the people who are listed as staying in this state-funded accommodation (as well as in privately-run hotels and B&Bs).

So the latest figures for the week of 18-24 September show that there were 5,250 adults and 3,124 children staying in this type of accommodation – giving a total of 8,374.

Homelessy The number of adults staying in state-funded emergency accommodation in Ireland in September. Source: Housing Department

As well as this figure, a twice-yearly count of the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin is also carried out. The latest count for spring found 138 people sleeping rough in Dublin in April (another count is due this month).

There are a number of people who sleep rough in other towns and cities across the country. The numbers are relatively low compared to Dublin and are not measured regularly. Census 2016 found 21 people sleeping rough in cities and towns outside of Dublin – however, for the purpose of this FactCheck we will only use the latest Dublin figure, as that is the number counted by the government.

That bring us to a combined total of 8,512 – this is the figure that the government is working off when it refers to homelessness.

However, there are a number of people in other unsure housing situations that need to be considered, especially when looking at the figures in an international context.

Women and children living in domestic violence refuges are not counted in Ireland’s housing figures (but are in many other countries), as they fall under the remit of Tusla the Child and Family Agency (rather than the Housing Department). A Tusla report found that in 2015, 1,736 women and 2,621 children were accommodated at some stage in domestic violence specialist accommodation such as refuges, safe houses or supported/transitional accommodation.

Ireland’s figures also don’t include the number of people living in Direct Provision centres awaiting a decision on their asylum applications. Latest figures from the Reception and Integration Agency (which is under the remit of the Department of Justice) show that there were 4,873 people living in Direct Provision centres across the state.

Ireland also doesn’t include people staying in institutions (hospitals and prisons, for example) with no home to go to when they leave. There are no national figures for this cohort.

Finally, Ireland’s homelessness figures do not take into account the number of people living in unstable and unsuitable housing situations – for example, couchsurfing with their friends or families, or doubled up in bedrooms.

Commonly referred to as the “hidden homeless” here, it is hard to get even a rough figure of how many people are in this situation across the country.

It is important to include these metrics as some or all of them are used when measuring homelessness in different countries, so it’s important to keep that in mind when comparing figures from different countries.

If Ireland was to include all the above when measuring homelessness – there would be closer to a rough figure of 17,700 homeless people in the country, as well as an unknown number of “hidden homeless”.

Measuring homelessness internationally

As we already stated, it is notoriously difficult to measure homelessness across different countries – even at EU level. This is because different countries use different definitions of homelessness, measure it differently and report on it differently.

One of the reports referenced by government as backing up its claim is the 2014 report from Feantsa – the European homelessness NGO. The report is titled Extent and Profile of Homelessness in European Member States, and looks at homelessness across 15 EU countries.

The second report – referenced by the Government Press Office – is the OECD Homeless Population report, which attempts to track levels of homelessness across OECD nations. Both reports reference a standardised approach to measuring homelessness known as the European Typology of Homelessness (ETHOS) Light system.

The ETHOS Light system was developed by Feantsa as a way of standardising homelessness data from different countries for the basis of research. Under ETHOS Light, there are six categories used to define homelessness, but not all categories apply in each country.

The categories are:

  1. People living rough
  2. People in emergency accommodation
  3. People living in accommodation for the homeless
  4. People living in institutions (and due to be released with no home to go to)
  5. People living in non-conventional dwellings due to a lack of housing
  6. Homeless people living temporarily in conventional housing with family and friends (due to a lack of housing)

Ireland only uses categories 1-3 in its definitions and measuring of homelessness.

The Feantsa report

The Feantsa report was compiled by getting experts across 15 EU member states to complete a questionnaire exploring the extent of statistical data on homelessness in their countries. The report finds that Ireland and Spain appeared to have the lowest levels of homelessness overall, but it notes that “their definitions did not include some ETHOS Light categories of homelessness”.

For this reason, it would be inaccurate to directly compare their rate of homelessness to other countries which may use other categories of measurement.

All countries typically apply categories 1-3 when counting homelessness (with some exceptions in how they are measured). Ireland is one of the countries that only uses these definitions.

Denmark, Finland and Sweden apply all six categories when counting the number of homeless people.

Meanwhile, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Spain all include in some form people living temporarily in conventional housing with family and friends due to a lack of housing (Ireland does not).

It is clear, then, that comparing homelessness across EU countries is difficult from the off. The data used for Ireland in the Feantsa report comes from April 2014, and lists 2,478 people in emergency accommodation and 127 sleeping rough – giving a total of 2,605 (children are not included in this figure).

As already shown, the number of homeless adults has doubled since then. Homeless children are not included in the report, but the number has at least quadrupled since the time of the Feantsa report (according to the official government count).

The Feantsa report attempts to compare EU countries across the six different Ethos Light categories.

However, it states that Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands cannot be included in this comparison as “numbers were collected following a completely different system”.

Of the remaining 10 countries, TheJournal.ie measured the number of homeless people only using categories 1-3 (as used by Ireland), and set it against the current population of the country to get a rough percentage of homelessness.

But as the report notes, even among these categories the data collection and methods used were highly variable from country to country – so they do not provide a comparable look across the countries.

Taking that all into account, the rough percentage of the population in each country that is homeless (using categories 1-3) in the Feantsa report is:

  1. Hungary - 12,155 homeless (0.12%)
  2. UK (England only) - 41,914 homeless (0.08%)
  3. Slovenia – 1,501 homeless (0.075%)
  4. Poland – 25,346 homeless (0.066%)
  5. Sweden – 6,510 homeless (0.065%)
  6. Ireland – 2,605 homeless (0.055%)
  7. Denmark – 3,170 homeless (0.055%)
  8. Spain – 17,448 homeless (0.03%)
  9. Portugal – 1,195 homeless (0.01%)
  10. Finland – 560 homeless (0.01%)

Poland, Sweden and Slovenia all include women’s refuges in their figures (which are not included in Ireland’s figures).

Finland and Poland include non-conventional dwellings like caravans (which are not included in Ireland’s figures).

Still, with this revised list, using old figures from Ireland (including children, homelessness has more than tripled since then, according to government figures), Ireland comes in at number six out of 10.

Even using measurements that are not fully comparable, this calls into question any statement that refers to homelessness here as “low by international standards”.

The OECD report

The exact same issues arise when comparing Ireland against other OECD countries in the homelessness report. The data are taken mostly from the 2016 OECD Questionnaire on Affordable and Social Housing.

In total, 29 out of 35 reporting countries provided data on the number of homeless. The table below shows the number of homeless people and the percentage of the population that is homeless:

OECD From the OECD report. Source: OECD via Homeless Population report

As you can see, 3,625 people listed as homeless in Ireland. The figures come from December 2015, and once again, children are not counted.

Ireland’s percentage of the population that is homeless is put at 0.08%, one of the lowest on the list. In the OECD report we see all the same issues applying as above in the Feantsa report.

For example, Australia’s homelessness percentage is put at 0.47% and New Zealand’s is put at 0.94% – both of which are very high when compared with Ireland.

However, people are considered homeless if they have “no other options to acquire safe and secure housing, are without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing”.

In New Zealand homelessness is defined as “living situations where people with no other options to acquire safe and secure housing: are without shelter, in temporary accommodation, sharing accommodation with a household or living in uninhabitable housing”.

Both countries employ a much broader definition than Ireland does, making direct comparison meaningless. On top of this, the report relies on unchecked data submitted by countries at different years, ranging from 2006 to 2016 – making comparison difficult.

It is worth noting also that Ireland’s current rate of homelessness as a percentage of the population is closer to 0.18% including children. This would put Ireland 10th on the list out of 30 countries (but, as already stated, it is impossible to directly compare countries).

Where we can compare 

It is clear then, that any comparisons of homelessness levels across countries is very difficult.

The Housing Department provided TheJournal.ie with links to homeless figures across different countries, but the same issues apply with not being able to compare like with like. Countries like the USA and France, for example, both have high rates of homelessness when compared to Ireland. But in the absence of a standardised method for measuring, it is difficult to directly compare.

(You can view a brief analysis of the figures provided here)

A recent presentation does give us some basis of comparing Ireland with countries of a similar population using similar definitions of homelessness.

A presentation by Trinity College Dublin professor Eoin O’Sullivan looked at homelessness in Ireland as compared to Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

The presentation measured homelessness as defined by Ireland (so excluding living with friends, on couches, for example) and compared it directly with like for like figures from the three other countries.

homelessx Levels of homelessness over nine years across the countries.

It found that Ireland has significantly higher number of homeless people when compared to Norway and Finland as well as more than Denmark.

The verdict

It is clear from the above data that any measure of homelessness across different countries brings up a whole host of problems. Across the EU and OECD there is simply not enough comparable data to make any claim around how Ireland’s homelessness numbers measure up internationally.

For that reason, we rate this claim UNPROVEN. As per our verdict guide, this means: The evidence available is insufficient to support or refute the claim, but it is logically possible.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

Read: FactCheck: Are there more homeless people in Ireland now than at any time since the Famine?

Read: Government’s top housing adviser: ‘Homelessness is a normal thing’

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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