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

Ireland is in the middle of a housing crisis, but are homeless numbers the highest they’ve ever been?

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IRELAND HAS BEEN dealing with a housing and homelessness crisis that has steadily worsened throughout the decade.

Campaigner Fr Peter McVerry – who has been working to help homeless people since the 1970s – said recently that the number of homeless people in Ireland is now greater than at any stage in the country’s history since the Great Famine (c. 1845-1851).

Given the big scope of this time period and the importance of identifying the number of homeless people in the country, we decided to put this statement to the test.

Claim: There are more homeless people in Ireland now than at any time since the Famine

What was said

Fr Peter McVerry appears to have first made this claim 30 August, 2016 while speaking to RTÉ’s Drive Time (audio available here).

Speaking about the number of vacant property units in Ireland and the Government efforts to alleviate homelessness, McVerry said:

“The minister’s plan for homeless and housing is a very comprehensive plan, it’s better than any plan we’ve had before, but it’s not radical enough.

We have an enormous crisis, we have more homeless people now in this country than at any time since the Famine.

McVerry repeated the statement on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show on 20 December (audio available here).

“You know, we have more homeless people today in Ireland than at any time since the Famine. And the reasons for people becoming homeless are much the same as during the Famine,” he said.

The statement was used by the Home Sweet Home campaign in its literature in December, and has spread on social media. Fr McVerry also repeated the statement more recently at a Cruinniú na Cásca event in April.

90438284_90438284 File photo of Fr Peter McVerry. Source: RollingNews.ie

The Evidence

Fr Peter McVerry is the director of homelessness charity the Peter McVerry Trust.

TheJournal.ie contacted the PMV Trust to provide evidence for the claim made by Fr McVerry. A spokesperson for the charity said the claim was based on Fr McVerry’s “knowledge of the issue and his work in homelessness since the early 1970s”.

The spokesperson said the claim was supported by:

  • A review of Irish Times archives for the period 1859-1970
  • A review of the period from 1970 to present day (including an analysis of research papers on homelessness)
  • A review of the homelessness statistics produced by the State since 1988
  • A look at figures for the main hostels/refuges in Dublin going back to the late 1800s and early 1900s

The spokesperson said that in reviewing all these figures at no stage was the number of homeless as large as it is now.

The Facts

To test how true the statement is, first we should look at the definition of homelessness used in Ireland.

Despite being a persistent feature of life in Ireland for centuries, homelessness wasn’t actually officially defined in Irish law until 1988.

The Housing Act (1988) gave the very first legal definition of what it meant to be homeless in the country.

Under Section 2 of that Act:

2.—A person shall be regarded by a housing authority as being homeless for the purposes of this Act if—

(a) there is no accommodation available which, in the opinion of the authority, he, together with any other person who normally resides with him or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him, can reasonably occupy or remain in occupation of, or

(b) he is living in a hospital, county home, night shelter or other such institution, and is so living because he has no accommodation of the kind referred to in paragraph (a),

and he is, in the opinion of the authority, unable to provide accommodation from his own resources.

The Act was a watershed moment in the history of homelessness in Ireland. Before 1988, no national count of the number of homeless people was ever carried out.

Before this, The Vagrancy Act (1847) - brought in over 150 years earlier – was introduced to punish people who were found to be ”wandering abroad and begging”, but it did not provide a workable definition as to who could be known as homeless.

Not only did the Housing Act actually define homelessness for the first time, but it also directed that local authorities perform counts (at least every three years) of the number of people in need of housing and living with homelessness.

The Housing Needs Assessment (HNA) – as these counts are called – gave the first national picture of the numbers of homeless people in the country. But the HNA is seen as a flawed measurement and isn’t what’s used today to count the number of homeless people.

This is where we hit our first road block in trying to figure out if there are more homeless people now than in the past. The main problem with trying to compare figures from different time periods is how differently homelessness is measured today than historically.

This poses a problem when comparing figures from a decade ago. When we try to go back a century, it gets a lot harder. So, first let’s look at homelessness from the 1988 Housing Act to 2017, before we attempt to go back before this.

90438201_90438201 A homeless person sleeps in a doorway on Grafton Street. Source: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Homelessness in the modern period (1988-2017)

So, like we said already:

Before the 1988 Housing Act, there was no official attempts to count the numbers of homeless people in the country (there wasn’t even a working definition of what people to count).

Section 8 of the Act required local authorities to count the number of homeless people who are in need of housing. The first of these ‘Housing Needs Assessments’ took place in 1989 and found a total of 1,491 people homeless.

Now, straight away there are issues with the HNA as measuring homelessness.

First of all, the HNA only counts people who are homeless and registered as qualifying for social housing support, and so does not count every homeless person or household (also, children aren’t included in the count).

Secondly, there is a line for defining homeless people in the Housing Act which states that a person must be:

in the opinion of the authority, unable to provide accommodation from his own resources.

The subjective nature of the line “in the opinion” meant that the local authority was given flexibility in relation to who was defined as homeless; and the lack of any standardised way of counting meant different local authorities could come up with different results.

Still, though, the HNAs were the first national counts carried out by law and still continue to this day. A new standardised way of counting was brought in after 2011 and the latest HNA was carried out in 2016.

But these assessments are not how homelessness is measured anymore.

How homelessness in measured 

Today, TheJournal.ie and other media organisations report every month on the number of homeless people in the country (which has been rising for close to a decade).

The reason we can all do this is because the Housing Department (formerly the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government) releases figures on a monthly basis.

This wasn’t always the case. In fact, in the long history of homelessness in Ireland this has only been going on a relatively short time. Less than three years, in fact (since June 2014).

The figures released are the number of people (adults and children) staying in State-funded emergency accommodation on a specific week in that month (hotels, hostels, etc).

90425495_90425495-2 File photo of Lynam's Hotel which was used as homeless accommodation. Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Separately, a count of the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin is carried out twice-yearly.

The upshot of all this is that we get a detailed look at the numbers of homeless people staying in State-funded accommodation. This system is commonly accepted as the best way that homelessness has been measured in the history of the State.

But when you think about it, it is still deeply flawed. The measurement doesn’t take into account people sleeping on couches, in friends’ houses, living in their cars, in Direct Provision, in crowded apartments, in hospital with nowhere to go, etc.

For all the advancements in categorisation and technology, the extent of homelessness in Ireland is still very difficult to measure. As you can imagine, this makes ANY comparison of figures very tough.

This is important to stress before we look at the figures properly.

Get to the numbers already!

Okay so with all that in mind, let’s look at the figures.

Latest monthly figures for homelessness found that there were 4,909 adults accessing emergency accommodation in the week 20-26 March.

As well as this, there were 2,563 children in emergency accommodation at this time, giving a total of 7,472 people.

homeless The number of people in homeless emergency accommodation in Ireland last month. Source: Housing Department

While no official rough sleeper count took place in Dublin during this week, the spring rough sleeper count took place a week later on the night of 4 April.

A total of 138 people were found to be sleeping on the streets of Dublin at this time. As well as this, 56 people slept in the Merchant’s Quay Night Café.

Let’s add these to the above figures to give ourselves a rough total of 7,666 homeless people. We’ll say at least 7,666 homeless people.

This figure of 7,666 is higher than any other month going back to June, 2014 when monthly figures are first available.

Prior to this, Census 2011 contained a special report on homelessness which found 3,808 people in total stayed in emergency accommodation or were sleeping rough on the night of 10 April 2011.

This is less than half the figure for last month using a very similar measure. It’s clear, then, that at least since the beginning of the decade the number of homeless has gone up.

census The number of homeless people and the type of accommodation they were staying in in 2011. Source: Census 2011

Prior to this, drawing comparisons of the figures becomes more difficult.

As mentioned, the Housing Needs Assessment was carried out from 1989 onwards (generally in three-year periods), with the latest held in 2016.

The number of homeless people counted in the HNA reached a peak of 5,581 adults in 2002, before declining (it has since risen again).

So the number of adults counted in the 2005 HNA is more than the number of adults counted in emergency accommodation last month.

However, adding in the number of children counted last month, along with rough sleepers gives us a higher figure. But like we’ve said, in effect two different measures are being looked at and so it would be wrong to directly compare the figures.

Not to labour the point, but even in the “modern period” it’s clear to see that you’re in dangerous waters when trying to compare the figures from different measurements of homelessness.

This is going to become a lot harder when we work our way back to the early 20th and late 19th century.

What we can say for certain is that the problem of homelessness has been increasingly getting worse since figures from the Housing Department started being released each month since 2014.

Homelessness has also worsened since the 2011 Census special report, and figures from HNA show the numbers going up over the past decade.

As well as this, the character of homelessness has changed in recent years. There are increasing numbers of children and families becoming homeless.

Long-standing charities – from the PMV Trust to Focus Ireland – have also warned that by their figures the problem is constantly worsening.

But is it worse than 150 years ago when the country was gripped by massive poverty, emigration and hunger?

Homelessness since the Famine (c. 1852-1988)

Right. Before 1988 counts of homelessness were mostly carried out by individual charities and interested groups of their own facilities.

In reality, according to research on the matter (P. 10), the State didn’t pay too much notice to the issue of homeless people up until the 1980s. Before this, groups of charities housed the people in need in their own homeless shelters.

The issue garnered little political attention in the 50s, 60s and 70s and certainly wasn’t regarded as the huge social issue it is now.

Figures from this period are hard to come by, and certainly there are none on the national scale we have today.

The PMV Trust stated that it looked through the Irish Times archives for the period 1859-1970 and found no figures for homelessness comparable with today (7,666).

A look by TheJournal.ie through the Irish Times archives for the same period backs up the PMV Trust’s claim.

A look through Irish Times archives from the time period mentioned using the search term “number of homeless” turns up 342 individual results. The vast majority of these are from the past 20 years.

At no point do figures mentioned in the paper compare to the 7,666 homeless people there are today.

Any figures that are mentioned before 1988, are generally the numbers in a certain hostel at a certain date; or estimated numbers given by protest groups to reporters.

At one point, an article from June 1987 estimates that there are 3,000 homeless people in Ireland (but doesn’t provide evidence). In another article from May 1969 protesters say there are 10,000 homeless in Dublin, but again no evidence is given. 

Further back through the years turns up the same results, with apparently no national figures mentioned. For all these reasons, the figures cannot be seen as representative of the actual number of homeless people in Ireland.

Workhouses and institutions

So let’s go back further to the late 18th and early 19th century.

No consideration of Ireland’s homeless after the Famine would be complete without looking at workhouses.

Workhouses were harsh places and are synonymous with the Great Famine. They were the places where Ireland kept its destitute poor as well as many if its sick and infirm from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.

In the years before the Famine, as Ireland’s population grew and food became more scarce, poverty was rife. Ireland was still under the control of the British government at the time, and that government brought in the Irish Poor Law Act in 1838.

Under this Act, Ireland was split into 130 separate Poor Law Unions (more were added later). These unions were required to have at least one workhouse, where the very poor could go.

History remembers workhouses as severe, awful places full of hardship, designed so that people would only consider going there as a last resort.

download (2) National Famine Commemorations 2010 in Co Mayo Source: RollingNews.ie

Families were split up on arrival (children up to the age of two were allowed to stay with their mothers), made to work all day, share beds and wear uniforms. Food was in short supply so hunger and disease was rife and there was little or no freedom while inside (although people could choose to leave permanently if they wanted).

Workhouses became synonymous with the Great Famine, when tens of thousands of starving people and families flocked to them in search of food and relief.

This mass movement of people (and the death that followed) was typical of the time. Looking at the records of workhouses from the period of the Famine shows huge numbers resident as inmates in them.

According to research, the highest number was recorded in the workhouses in 1851, when 217,388 ‘inmates’ were resident in them. This was the peak, following the end of the Famine numbers gradually decreased over the decades.

Okay, so let’s move past the Famine towards the end of the 19th century.

Records from the Local Government Board of Ireland’s 28th annual report (available here) show that by the year 1899-1900 there were a maximum of over 41,000 people still resident in workhouses.

This number included over 6,000 children under the age of 15.

Famine1 Source: http://www.dippam.ac.uk via http://www.dippam.ac.uk/eppi/documents/19900/eppi_pages/544057

Now, each workhouse had a specific section predominantly for “night lodgers” or “casuals” as the people were called. These sections were kept for what were known as vagrants at the time: wandering homeless men, women and children who only stayed for a limited time at each workhouse.

A look at the records from 1899-1900 shows us in the region of 3,000-4,000 of these type of lodgers being “relieved” in the workhouses each week. Also, remember that we’re talking about the island of Ireland at this stage and not just the Republic.

The estimated population at this period was about 4.5 million people (roughly the same as today).

Figures continuing up until the workhouses were largely closed and converted into county homes, asylums and other institutions show a similar pattern of decline.

The workhouse homeless 

Is it right, then, to categorise only the “night lodgers” or “vagrants” of this period as homeless? What about the Idiots and Lunatics (as they were called at the time) who were made to stay in the workhouses?

The general population of the workhouses went there as they were poor, hungry and destitute and could not support themselves or their families anymore. While they may have entered the workhouses out of poverty (rather than necessarily lack of shelter), by today’s definition of homelessness in Ireland, these people would likely be called homeless.

shutterstock_600051062 File photo of the Famine graveyard behind the stone 'fever hospital' built on the site of the workhouse where hundreds of Irish famine victims died. Source: Shutterstock/Susilyn

Under the definition in the Housing Act, a person is homeless if:

“he is living in a hospital, county home, night shelter or other such institution, and is so living because he has no accommodation” which he (or she) can be reasonably expected to reside in.

So under that definition, the 56,000 resident in workhouses in 1866-67; or the 41,000 in 1899-1900 could be regarded as homeless. That would be 6-8 times more than is counted now.

Another interesting count of homeless people is given in The Report of the Commission on the Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor, Including the Insane Poor in 1928.

This report states that the gardaí were instructed to count the number of “homeless persons observed wandering on the public highways in a single night in November, 1925″.

That number came up with 3,257 men, women and children in total (but again is a very different type of count than we have today).

Throughout the 20th century

The workhouse figures gave some indication of the numbers of homeless people – both “vagrants” and families in need of help – towards the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th.

Upon their closure, figures of homelessness are hard to come by.

Like we talked about already, it was mostly independent charities working outside of State monitoring that kept figures for their own shelters and hostels.

For obvious reasons, these figures are hard to come by and aren’t a reliable gauge of the numbers of homeless people in the country.

What we do know is that homelessness wasn’t considered an important political issue through much of the 20th century, and certainly didn’t occupy the public consciousness as it does now.

The issue came to more prominence in the 1980s, culminating the passing of the 1988 Housing Act.

Conclusion

From everything we’ve looked at, it is clear that homelessness has gotten worse in Ireland over the past number of years; it is also clear that the way in which homelessness is measured has changed drastically in the past century.

How we view the homeless, how we treat marginalised groups in society, how we care for people and how we view social problems have all changed hugely in the past 150 years.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, comparing today’s homelessness figures to even 10 years ago poses problems, never mind 100 years ago.

But there is no comparison now between the number of homeless people today and the numbers in workhouses at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Homelessness is today in Ireland a pressing and worsening social issue, but it cannot be compared in terms of scale and devastation to the Great Famine and the years that followed.

However, while the people who suffered in the years after the Famine in workhouses would certainly be considered homeless under today’s definition, they weren’t what was known as “vagrants” or “night lodgers” then.

That said, today’s numbers of homeless people are at the highest they have been in recent years, and the problem continues to get worse. The new measurement brought in since 2014 highlights the importance of properly categorising and counting the number of homeless people.

The fact is that people in workhouses were treated terribly, and were not known then under the popular definition of homeless. Still, as we have said, by today’s standards they certainly would have been.

Taking all that into consideration, we rate this claim:

Mostly-FALSE

As our verdicts guide explains, this means:

There is an element of truth in the claim, but it is missing critical details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs against the claim.

It’s clear that Ireland is in the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis. It’s also clear that the problem has continued to worsen over the past number of years and looks likely to do so further.

Despite not having consistent figures, it also seems that homelessness is at it’s higher point now than at other points since the latter half of 20th century.

However, when compared to the poverty and destitution experienced be people in the latter half of the 19th century, the problem is not as bad as records show was the case then.

But without proper figures to go by to directly relate different time periods, its impossible to directly compare the numbers in any meaningful way.

Read: FactCheck: Is secondary picketing actually illegal?

Read: FactCheck: Are Catholic schools more socially diverse than other schools?

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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