An international perspective on Irish homelessness policy
Author: Nicholas Pleace
In 2020, with the new Government keen to move on with its new ‘Housing For All’ strategy, a number of organisations working with people who are homeless on a daily basis decided it was time to take stock of the lessons from Rebuilding Ireland and the homeless strategies that had preceded it. The group, comprising Focus Ireland, Simon Communities of Ireland, Society of St. Vincent De Paul, Mercy Law Centre, COPE Galway and the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, commissioned international experts on homeless strategies to undertake the review. The resulting report, ‘From Rebuilding Ireland to Housing for All: international and Irish lessons for tackling homelessness’ was launched in September this year, receiving widespread positive coverage. Here we asked the lead researcher, Professor Nicholas Pleace of York University, to write a guest blog, setting out the main conclusions from the project.
Homelessness persists in Ireland, despite sustained political efforts that have included multiple strategies, programmes and initiatives, 15 of which have been designed and delivered since 2000, not including the most recent strategy Housing for All. Homelessness persists, despite public expenditure levels that have seen Ireland devoting comparable sums to reducing and preventing homelessness to those seen in archetypical Scandinavian welfare states including Denmark and Finland.
My colleagues and myself were asked by a coalition of Irish homelessness sector organisations to cast a critical, but friendly, eye on the progress that has been made in preventing and reducing homelessness. Collectively, we brought experience in homelessness research and policy evaluation at EU level, from Portugal, the USA and the UK, as well as from within Ireland itself.
We had witnessed successes like those achieved in Finnish homelessness strategy, which has reduced homelessness to a residual social problem. We had also seen cascade failures, like London’s madly spiralling temporary accommodation costs, driven by a homelessness system that simply cannot cope with demand. Alongside this, there was the usual mix of experience with policies, practice and service models that were qualified successes, qualified failures and the odd enthusiastically backed ‘innovation’ that appeared to achieve almost nothing, good, bad or indifferent. The myriad contradictions in international homelessness, housing and social policy, that can mean a country, region or city is simultaneously doing things that prevent, reduce and cause homelessness, were familiar territory to us.
Our research had shown us, time and time again, that homelessness is not an inevitability, not some unintended by-product of the normal functioning of an economically developed society that had to be accepted as a part of life. The well intentioned, but essentially incorrect, statement that ‘homelessness can happen to anyone’ is not backed by the evidence.
Homelessness happens to poor people. Homelessness happens when poor and lower income people cannot afford housing costs because private rental and owner-occupied markets are overheated. Homelessness also happens when someone with treatment and support needs cannot get the help they need. It is not a question of someone becoming homeless because they have developed mental health problems, it is a question of systemic failure in mental health and other systems that allows someone with mental illness to become homeless. Homelessness is not just people living rough, not just people with addiction and mental health problems, not just ex-offenders and care leavers – though all can experience it – it can be and often is a family with dependent kids that can find no way in which it can afford to put a roof over its head.
In essence, well resourced, highly integrated homelessness strategies, combined with adequate supplies of social and affordable housing and a welfare system that ensures people have just about to live on, are a recipe for a low homelessness society. Turning to Finland again, where a serious and sustained strategic effort to prevent and reduce homelessness within already extensive and generous social policy, it can be seen that long-term homelessness can be almost eradicated. The chances of becoming and staying homeless in Finland may not be quite as low as being struck by lightning, but one look at the Finnish homelessness statistics will show you they are getting there.
The same pattern is evident from international experience around specific programmes to tackle particular aspects of homelessness. The Rough Sleepers Initiative in the UK and the pre-Trump responses to veteran homelessness in the USA or the French National Housing First programme Un chez-soi d’abord all had significant effects on particular homelessness, even if they did not match the comprehensive strategic approach of the Finns. Homelessness, whether one is talking about particular aspects of it, or seeking to address it as a whole, can be prevented, it can be reduced and it can, because we can see it being done, almost be brought to a point where it comes very close to being effectively stopped altogether.
Strategic integration is key, all the different partner agencies, from local authorities through to social landlords, health, social work, addiction services and the child protection and criminal justice systems need to work together. Affordable and – crucially – social housing supply is essential, prevention cannot work if the housing market is insanely overheated, nor can innovations like Housing First, because they are housing-led, they need the right housing to function. The best kind of housing is social, because the rents are the most affordable and the security of tenure is good, it provides the settled homes that people need, not just temporary accommodation that might disappear in a year when the lease, tenancy or rental agreement has run out.
A lot of what Ireland has sought to do up until this point and a lot of the ideas and commitments in Housing for All follow these ideas. Irish policy also reflects a wider European approach that has been cemented in the Lisbon Declaration of the European Platform on Combatting Homelessness, to which Ireland and the other EU-27 Member States are signatories. Housing First is there, so are commitments to increase affordable and social housing supply and new measures to prevent homelessness. There is a serious policy commitment to homelessness reduction and prevention, and, by European standards, a serious set of spending commitments focused on homelessness.
From an international perspective, however, the ‘homelessness’ that Housing for All seeks to prevent and reduce is narrowly defined, centring on people in emergency accommodation and living rough, not on the wider issue of homelessness as a whole. Rough sleeping, in the Irish context, involves tiny numbers of people, these are people who need the right housing and help to exit living rough, but they are not the bulk of homelessness. Hidden homelessness, the people who have no front door, no private space, no legal right to live in the place in which they are living, because it is owned or rented by an acquaintance is an important part of homelessness. A policy that reduces the number of people experiencing homelessness in emergency accommodation, but which does nothing for a young person who has left care and is sofa surfing, or a woman staying with an acquaintance because domestic abuse has made her own home unsafe, is just that, a policy to reduce emergency accommodation use, it is not a policy to reduce homelessness.
From Rebuilding Ireland to Housing for All: international and Irish lessons for tackling homelessness (2022) is available here.
Nicholas Pleace is Director of the Centre for Housing Policy, an interdisciplinary research
team within the School for Business and Society at the University of York. He has worked in
homelessness research for over 25 years and been a member of the European Observatory
on Homelessness for over a decade. Nicholas has a Chair in Social Policy at York and is
currently the University Research Theme Champion for Justice and Equalities Research.
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