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FactCheck: Are there really 20,000 homeless people in Northern Ireland?

The way statistics on homelessness are compiled are completely different in the two jurisdictions.

Varadkar and McDonald clashed at the debate on Tuesday night.
Varadkar and McDonald clashed at the debate on Tuesday night.
Image: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

LAST NIGHT, TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin and Mary Lou McDonald faced off in an RTE Prime Time debate ahead of this Saturday’s general election.

The housing crisis came up early on, and Varadkar used the opportunity to attack McDonald over her party’s record in government in Northern Ireland.

Prompted by the Sinn Féin leader, the Taoiseach made a number of claims about social services in the region, including its suicide rate and rising pension age.

But the biggest point of contention was his claim that there are 20,000 people homeless in the North, more than there are south of the border. Was he correct?

The Claim

Leo Varadkar claimed that figures showed there are more people homeless in the North than in the Republic.

He said:

The official stats from Northern Ireland [show] there are 20,000 people homeless in Northern Ireland, more than is the case here in this State. 

Context

The situation arose after Mary Lou McDonald said there were solutions to the homelessness crisis, but that the “political will” was needed to address the problems.

Miriam O’Callaghan put it to McDonald that the homelessness figures have dropped recently. She is correct: in December there was a drop of 717 in the number of people in emergency accommodation. 

But charities have pointed out that there is frequently a decline in homelessness around Christmas. In recent years, homelessness has been rising consistently and stood at over 10,000 people for much of last year.

At this point in the debate, Varadkar asked McDonald how many people were homeless in Northern Ireland. She retorted that the figures of homelessness here were “nothing to crow about”, before the Taoiseach made the 20,000 claim.

He also made claims regarding suicide rates and the pension age in Northern Ireland and said “Sinn Féin doesn’t want to talk about its record in government”. 

As we explained in a previous FactCheck ahead of the last general election in 2016, homelessness in Northern Ireland is measured differently to the way it is in Ireland.

There are also differences in how Northern Ireland calculates its figures compared with England, Wales and Scotland. 

In the North, a person “presents” as homeless by contacting their local authority and making a claim of homelessness.

The local authority will generally then make a decision as to whether that claim is valid (“accepted”). If the claim is deemed valid, the individual is eligible for social housing and other supports.

Included within the total number of homeless households and individuals are people in temporary accommodation, rough sleepers, those living in insecure or “unreasonable” accommodation, people under the threat of eviction or in overcrowded accommodation, and those living in women’s shelters.

In contrast, homeless figures in Ireland – released by the Department of Housing – only count those living in emergency accommodation. If this was the only criterion for tallying the number of individuals in emergency accommodation in the North, it would significantly lower the total. 

Ireland doesn’t count the so-called “hidden homeless” that are counted in the North among its official statistics. This has been criticised in the past by housing charities

The Evidence

To count the North’s homelessness figures, there are a two datasets available. 

First, we’ll look at statistics from the Department of Communities, the section of the region’s civil service responsible for the issue.

Twice a year, the department produces its Northern Ireland Homelessness bulletins which contain the statistics on those who present as homeless. 

Latest figures from the department cover March to October last year, with statistics for the months since then not published until this March.

They show that 8,527 households presented as homeless over the six-month period. Of these, 2,415 of these had their applications rejected, cancelled or prevented by the department, or withdrawn by the applicant.

That leaves a figure of 6,121 households whose applications were accepted or not yet dealt with by October 2019. 

When the number of applications which have not yet been dealt with have been removed, there are 5,732 households (which includes single people) whose application was accepted – the ones we definitely know were homeless.

That figure was made up of 2,069 families, 1,385 single men, 1,030 single women, 1,008 pensioner households and 240 couples.

Within these 2,069 families, there were a total of 3,698 dependent children. The number of adults is not separated out, therefore we do not know if they are two-parent or single-parent families. 

Adding these figures together, we can say that at least 9,670 people were registered as homeless in the North during March and October last year. (This figure could be higher, depending on how many parents are in each family – for this FactCheck, we have counted at least one). 

A report by the UK charity Crisis, published at the start of this year, noted that the number of rough sleepers in the North on any given night is 250, bringing the overall figure to at least 9,920.

Crisis also noted that the way official statistics are counted in the North significantly contributes to the high homeless figures there, compared with the rest of the UK, as people affected by ill health, for example, are forced to reapply for housing via homeless legislation. 

However, the second dataset - figures from the Department of Housing in Northern Ireland – suggest a figure closer to Varadkar’s claim.

They show that in 2018/19, 18,202 households were logged by the NI Housing Executive as presenting as homeless – and given that the number of people in a household can be more than one, the number of individuals will be higher than this. 

On the list of the top reasons for presenting as homeless are that current accommodation wasn’t reasonable, a family dispute, loss of rented accommodation, a marital or relationship breakdown and neighbourhood harassment.

But of the 18,202 presenting as homeless, 69% of these – 12,512 households – were accepted as full applicants and provided with accommodation. Of these, 2,668 households were discharged, meaning that they were re-housed in the social or private sector, turned down three reasonable offers of accommodation, or re-housed themselves.

So, of the 12,512 households accepted as full applicants after presenting as homeless, 2,668 were discharged meaning that 9,844 households were still classified as homeless at the end of that period. 

Again, as households include single people and families the number of actual people homeless will be higher – but that is not possible to quantify given the figures available.

Separately, Crisis’ homelessness monitor published last week – containing figures for 2017/18 – says that there were just over 3,000 people in temporary accommodation, which would be similar to what is referred to as emergency accommodation (B&Bs, hotels, etc) in Ireland. Comparing that with the most recent figures in Ireland, there were 9,731 people in emergency accommodation in December 2019.

Verdict

Leo Varadkar claimed that there were 20,000 homeless people in the North, much more than there are in the Republic.

There are two elements to this sentence, so we’re going to break the verdict into two parts.

PART 1: 20,000 homeless people in the North 

Over 18,000 households presented at homeless in 2018/19 – which means the number of individuals would be higher, and could be around Leo Varadkar’s figure. However, of these, 12,512 households were accepted as being homeless

We don’t know the full number of people this covers, as the statistics don’t provide this. It refers to households.

This is backed up by a report from the Northern Ireland audit office said that “since 2005-06 around 20,000 households each year have presented as homeless with an average of 50% accepted as statutory homeless“. 

Given that Northern Ireland only counts households, rather than individuals, there could be 20,000 homeless people, but there is no information available to back this figure up. The only figures available shows the number of homeless households. 

Therefore, our verdict for this is: UNPROVEN

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

PART 2: The number of homeless people in the North is more than in the Republic 

Northern Ireland and Ireland have completely different definitions of homelessness and how they count how many people are homeless.

At last count, there were just under 10,000 people homeless in Ireland – that is, living in emergency accommodation. According to the latest report from charity Crisis, just over 3,000 people in Northern Ireland were in similar temporary accommodation. This tallies with other official statistics that have had the number between 2,500 and 3,000 in recent bulletins.

The two jurisdictions use completely different methods of counting the number of people who are homeless. Northern Ireland counts a wide range of people as being homeless, including people living in insecure or unreasonable accommodation and people in women’s shelters, but in the Republic, the definition only includes people living in emergency accommodation. 

Further, Northern Ireland’s official figures counts households, rather than individuals, so there isn’t an exact number of homeless individuals as there is here. 

It’s also important to remember the context of what the Taoiseach was saying. “Sinn Féin doesn’t want to talk about its record in government,” he said, pointing to the number of homeless people in Northern Ireland, as well as other factors such as the pension age and suicide rates. 

It is not unreasonable to infer that he was trying to make the claim that homelessness rates are worse in Northern Ireland – under Sinn Féin’s watch – than they are under his government in Ireland. However, given how statistics on homelessness are compiled in completely different ways in both jurisdictions, they are not directly comparable

If we were to count homelessness in Northern Ireland the way we count it in Ireland – solely looking the numbers in emergency accommodation – the numbers in Ireland are far higher (Northern Ireland had just over 3,000 people in temporary accommodation; Ireland has 9,731). 

It is impossible to compare homeless figures in Ireland to those in Northern Ireland as authorities in Ireland do not count the numbers of people living in insecure or unreasonable accommodation, under the threat of eviction or in overcrowded accommodation, and those living in women’s shelters, whereas those in Northern Ireland do.

Therefore, our verdict for this is 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. 

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About the author:

Sean Murray & Stephen McDermott

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