Having access to accurate data is key to informing policy and services responses to tackle homelessness. It is equally vital to have the information behind the numbers to be able to clearly understand trends as they develop, and respond accordingly.
This blog follows on from our January blog, both attempting to understand what is behind the dramatic fall and rise in the homeless figures over the last month of 2019 and the first of 2020. It is based on detailed analysis of the December and January figures by Focus Ireland Policy Officer, Aisling Reidy.
In 2014 the Government started publishing regular figures for homelessness and, co-incidentally, the homeless crisis began. Since that date a seasonal pattern has emerged – the overall number of people in emergency accommodation declines in December and rises again in January. However, in December 2019 the decline was unprecedentedly large. With 717 fewer people in emergency accommodation in December than November, this was the largest month-on-month reduction in homelessness during the current crisis. This attracted significant media attention in the run up to the General Election, with speculation that the decline was caused by larger numbers of families getting new social homes, and that we might have finally ‘turned the corner’, while others questioned the validity of the figures.
Unfortunately, a sharp rise in homelessness in January 2020 has reversed the December fall across many demographic categories. While the underlying causes of this bounce in the figures are still unclear, what is clear is that it relates to a change in pattern in single persons’ homelessness in December and, regrettably, it is not evidence of a pick-up in families moving in new social housing.
Unusual patterns in single adult homelessness
Family homelessness has tended to drop in December due to families staying with their wider family over Christmas. On the other hand, the number of single adults tends to increase reflecting the additional shelter beds which have been made available each year in the run up to Christmas. This upward trend in single people’s homelessness and the downward trend in family homelessness in December have tended to balance each other out, resulting in an overall slight dip in December. In January, the typical pattern has been for family homelessness to rise as the Christmas arrangements end, while single adult homelessness also increases slightly resulting in an overall increase which can be very large.
This year was different, but the difference was with single homeless people not families. In December 2019, family homelessness fell in line with the established pattern, but single adult homelessness broke with previous patterns by falling significantly – with both figures falling we saw an unprecedented drop in the overall December homeless figures (-7%).
In January, family homelessness continued to follow its established pattern with a post-Christmas rise, while single persons’ homelessness dramatically reversed the December decline, bringing single persons’ homelessness to the highest level ever. Looked at in detail, single adult homelessness fell by 180 between November and December 2019, compared to an average increase of 140 in the previous four Decembers. January 2020 saw an equally uncharacteristic jump, with a dramatic increase of 306 single adults in emergency accommodation in the space of one month. This brought single adult homelessness to its highest level ever, at 4,400.
Overall these changes resulted in the total number of people in emergency accommodation falling by 717 in December and rising by 540 in January, bringing the total back up over the 10,000 figure, which the media and politicians have deemed to be significant, to 10,271.
The Government’s decision to make several poorly explained changes to how homeless figures are reported fuelled scepticism about the dramatic decline during the General Election campaign, but the sudden – albeit brief – fall in single persons’ homelessness appears to be real, if unexplained. The DRHE reported an average 53 bed empty every night during December, against an average of only 9 per night during the year as whole. In one night in December there were 109 empty beds.
Explanations for the homeless figures
The Department of Housing Quarterly Report for Q4 2019 stated that 1,582 people exited homelessness in the last quarter of the year. This is just 18 more exits than in Q3 2019 (1,564), when we saw no correspondingly large decrease in the homeless figures. However, as explained in our detailed analysis, the practice of counting households as ‘exiting homelessness’ who have never been counted as ‘entering homelessness’ undermines the value of this analysis.
At the time of writing, the Q4 report on social housing supply has not been published, but an increase in social housing provision is unlikely to explain the December drop since the largest decrease was among single adults. According to the DRHE report only 43 single people exited homelessness to tenancies in December 2019, almost two-thirds of them to the private rental sector.
Overall, the December fall in homelessness did not reveal the long-awaited widespread decline in homelessness. In a number of groups there is a welcome stabilisation in the figures, such as youth and child homelessness, and these are analysed in more detail in this policy paper. Whether these positive trends are sustained over the coming year depends on the actions of the incoming Government. In addition to implementing the five key initiatives identified by Focus Ireland, such a new Government would do well to restore confidence and clarity to the published homeless statistics.
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