Focus Ireland Research Officer Sarah Sheridan explores the statistics which show clearly that homelessness is a crisis caused by a broken housing system, and not the fault of men, women and children impacted.
The Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) stated in their recent report on family homelessness that 49-51% of families are entering homelessness in Dublin due to ‘Family Circumstances’. By taking a deeper look at the experiences of families before they become homeless, however, Focus Ireland data reveals a different picture – and highlights how a precarious private rental housing market is the key driver of the current crisis.
Focus Ireland and the DRHE publish regular analysis around family homelessness in the Dublin region. There are notable parallels across each of the data sets – particularly around the profile of families living in emergency accommodation. However, there is a critical difference in what is arguably the most important research question: what are the primary causes of family homelessness?
We must critically engage with the reasons behind these differing pictures of the family homelessness crisis, as this has a significant impact on policy and service responses – particularly around prevention.
Distinct Approach to Capturing ‘Causes’ of Homelessness
In order to understand the divergent research findings emerging in the Focus Ireland and DRHE datasets, it’s worth taking a look at how the data is collected.
Focus Ireland conducts targeted telephone surveys every three months with families who recently presented as homeless, surveys carried out by Focus Ireland’s Research Officers.
The survey pursues the root cause of homelessness by capturing the previous four living situations; many families are known to stay temporarily with friends or family before presenting to their local authority as homeless. This gives an insight into the last ‘stable home’ and the steps from that into homelessness.
DRHE conducts administrative data analysis of assessment forms which are filled out by front-line workers across the four local authorities in Dublin. The cause of homelessness is determined by the reported-reason for the family leaving their most recent living situation, in other words it only captures the final step into homelessness.
Focus Ireland data consists of a random sample of families conducted every three months (297 surveys have been conducted to date) compared to DRHE data which captures a full population (1,878 assessment forms).
The Link between the Private Rented Sector & Housing Instability for Low-Income Families
Through capturing the last four accommodations of families, Focus Ireland found that 69% (or 205 of the 297 surveyed families) reported that their last ‘stable’ home was in the private rented sector.
Indeed, Focus Ireland found that family and relationship breakdown or overcrowding causing homelessness only accounts for 23% (or 67) of families. This sharply contrasts with DRHE analysis which finds that 49-51% of families become homeless due to ‘family circumstances’.
In other words, ‘family circumstances’ (or family conflict) may trigger a family presenting to their local authority as homeless, but this does not necessarily mean that family conflict caused their homelessness.
Rather, it was a loss of private rented accommodation which originally triggered housing instability – and over weeks or months – ultimately led to the family living in emergency accommodation.
Focus Ireland data also reveals that 48% (or 99) of families entered housing instability because the private rented home was being removed from the market (due to the landlord selling; the landlord’s property being repossessed or sold by a bank; the landlord moving back in; major renovations; or the landlord giving the property to a family member). These findings emerge in every round of data collection with striking consistency
Evidence-Based Policy: The Importance of Research Design
There is by now an established consensus that research and data can drive informed and appropriate policy responses and service practices in tackling social problems. While research published by Focus Ireland, DRHE and indeed any stakeholder can assist policy-makers and services shape effective responses to the problem of family homelessness, it is equally as important to also take into account the impact research design can have on the data that is generated. In presenting their analysis the DRHE have consistently drawn attention to this limitation in their data, but regrettably some commentators and politicians have looked no further than the headline and concluded that ‘family breakdown’ is the driving force behind our current crisis.
Because ultimately, understanding what is causing family homelessness matters: it impacts on policy planning, service delivery, media discourse, and even public opinion.
By conceptualising the current family homelessness crisis as one driven by suddenly high rates of problems of ‘family circumstances’, we run the risk of returning to misplaced (and long-discredited) notions that homelessness is the fault of the individual, rather than a problem driven – and perpetuated – by a broken housing system.
Focus Ireland Quarterly Telephone Surveys of Families Presenting as Homeless can be found here as part of our Insights into Family Homelessness Series. A publication on ‘The Cause of Family Homelessness: Survey Data from 2016 and 2017’ is forthcoming.
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