Homeless Figures and the Impact of COVID-19
Author: Aisling Reidy
The third volume of our ‘Focus on Homelessness’ (October 2020) report presents data covering the first six months of the 2020, providing the first insight into the impact of the Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ period on homelessness. As always, ‘Focus on Homelessness’ presents the data without interpretation or opinion, and this blog delves deeper into the impact of the pandemic using data from the report.
From 27 March 2020, a range of Government measures were introduced to prevent people becoming homeless during the pandemic, including a moratorium on all evictions and a rent freeze. Focus Ireland and many others have long called for such preventative measures to be introduced in response to the housing crisis over the past several years, but a lack of political will and a fear of unconstitutionality have blocked their introduction on several occasions. The introduction of these measures during COVID-19 demonstrated that they are perfectly feasible, and now the evidence set out in ‘Focus on Homelessness’ demonstrates that they can effectively prevent and reduce homelessness. The COVID-19 emergency has altered our perspective on many aspects of our lives, and should be used as an opportunity to alter our approach to homelessness beyond the pandemic.
Figure 1: Total Individuals in Emergency Accommodation
The March figures were collected the week of 23rd – 29th March, the week the stay-at-home order came into effect. There were 9,907 individuals in emergency accommodation at this point, of which 4,027 were adult men, 2,525 were adult women and 3,355 were children. By June, the total number in emergency accommodation had fallen to 8,699, its lowest level since 2017 and a decrease of 12%.
As lockdown restrictions have lifted, the rate of decrease in homelessness has slowed. July saw the first month-on-month increase this year to date, of just 0.3% (+29). However, the July figures are still 15% lower than this time last year.
Entries and Exits from Homelessness
Focus Ireland research has shown that the majority of people becoming homeless in Ireland had their last stable home in the rental sector, and many lose their homes due to landlords deciding to sell or move a relative into the property. The moratorium on evictions prohibited evictions from rental tenancies on all grounds between the end of March and the 31st July 2020. This is the most likely cause of the reduced flow of people into homelessness, as seen in Figure 2 below. The reduced rate of inflow could also have been influenced by changes in behaviour caused by the pandemic rather than the eviction embargo – for instance, people who were at risk of homelessness seeking alternative short-term options such as moving in with extended family or remaining in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation, in preference to entering hostels during lockdown.
Figure 2: Daily Average Entries and Exits from Emergency Accommodation
Q2 2020 was the first quarter in which the number of people exiting homelessness is higher than the number becoming homeless since this data began being published in 2014 – resulting in a drop in the numbers experiencing homelessness. The decline in people entering homelessness was more pronounced than the increase in the numbers leaving. On average, there were fifteen people presenting as homeless each day in Q1 2020, compared to 9.8 in Q2. On average to date, 12.7 people have presented as homeless each day in 2020. By this point last year, 17 people had presented as homeless each day.
On the other hand, the number of people exiting emergency accommodation in Q2 2020 was 11.7 per day, just 0.3 above Q1 and 1.2 above Q2 last year.
Nevertheless, exits to housing reached their highest-ever level in Dublin in Q2 this year, at 679. Nationally, exits to housing to date this year stand at just under 2,100 people, far above exits to housing for the first two quarters of 2019, at 1,785.
Figure 3: Exits from Emergency Accommodation to Housing
The increased number of exits during the period appears to be accounted for by increased exits to social housing as well as to private rental sector, via HAP. According to the DRHE report to its Housing SPC, June and July 2020 had the two highest monthly numbers of Homeless HAP tenancies sourced in Dublin since the scheme started in 2016, with 132 HHAP exits in July (plus a further 128 cases where households where diverted from becoming homeless by accessing HHAP).
In relation to social housing, a verbal report at the September Housing SPC meeting itself noted that in order to protect vulnerable and older people who are homeless during the pandemic, DCC had ‘front-loaded our homeless lettings for the year’ and that lettings would have to be ‘rebalanced’ during the rest of the year – essentially virtually all the 2020 housing allocations to homeless households were made in the first half of the year.
We will need to wait to see whether the increased availability of rental properties in Dublin during this period was a once-off feature or a new trend, but it is certain that, with current policies, the increase in access to social housing was a once-off boost and that such exits will fall substantially during the rest of the year, as the pattern of letting is rebalanced.
Family Homelessness and Gender
The drop in the number of people in emergency accommodation during the pandemic was mainly driven by a drop in the number of homeless families. There were 329 fewer families in emergency accommodation in June compared to March, a drop of 22%. By comparison, the number of households without children fell by just 1% over this period.
Figure 4: Composition of Households Accessing Emergency Accommodation
The number of single parent families in emergency accommodation saw the largest drop, falling by almost a quarter (-24%).
Looking at the numbers by gender shows a similar trend. Figure 5 below shows that COVID-19 has had a stronger impact on the number of women in emergency accommodation, falling by 14% between March and June this year. The number of men in emergency accommodation has fallen by 5% over the same period. Most single-parent families in homelessness are headed by women, and over half of all families in emergency accommodation are single-parent families.
Figure 5: Adults in Emergency Accommodation by Gender
The number of families who had been in emergency accommodation for less than 6 months fell by over 40% in the first six months of 2020. The drop in presentations discussed above accounts for this decrease in short-term homelessness, as very few families were entering homelessness in the months between March and June. However, the decreases shown in every other category in Figure 6 below shows that preventative measures alone don’t explain the decrease in the homeless figures, and that families who had been in emergency accommodation for longer than 6 months also benefitted from the increase in exits in Dublin over the period, though to a lesser extent.
It is possible that the number of long-term homeless families moving out of homelessness was linked to the burst of social housing allocations over the period, and if so, we can expect this positive pattern to disappear as social housing allocations to homeless households dry up for the rest of the year.
Figure 6: Length of Time in Emergency Accommodation for Families in Dublin
The number of adults who have been homeless for longer than six months has risen each quarter for the past six years. Q2 2020 is the first time this trend has been reversed, falling by 7% between Q1 and Q2 this year.
However, the decrease has been entirely concentrated in Dublin. Figure 7 below shows the number of long-term homelessness in Dublin falling by 11% between Q1 and Q2 to its lowest level since Q4 2018. By contrast, for the rest of the country this figure rose by 5% over this period. The Dublin City Council policy of front-loading social housing lettings to older vulnerable homeless people, referred to above, is likely to have made a significant contribution to this and also to the welcome 33% decline in the number of homeless people over 65.
Figure 7: Adults in Emergency Accommodation for longer than Six Months
After years of a housing and homelessness crisis, it has become too easy for the rising numbers each month to seem normal and not urgent. The narrative that homelessness is inevitable and that there are no policy solutions available to politicians has been proven false by the evidence presented in ‘Focus on Homelessness’ Vol 3. But this is less of a cause for celebration than it might be – many of the polices which drove this change are being discontinued, despite their proven effectiveness.
The largest effect of the pandemic was a decrease in households entering homelessness. While some of this can be ascribed to changes in behaviour, the total ban on evictions was clearly a very significant factor, with strong evidence that the banning of ‘eviction-to-sell’ being the biggest factor. The failure to continue this latter measure means that we can expect to see a return to previous patterns of entry into homelessness, with a potential surge as landlords seek to ‘catch up’.
The increased exits from homelessness was also significant. It is unclear whether the increased availability of private rented accommodation will continue or whether it was a short-term factor arising from factors such as non-Irish workers returning home or landlords moving their property from the short-term let/AirBnB market. Few short-term policies are available to influence overall demand in the private rented sector, but moves to permanently hold previously short-term rental properties in the long-term market which feature in other states are conspicuously absent in Ireland.
The prioritizing of social housing lettings to homeless households was a more significant part of the overall picture than has been recognized to date, and is part of the flexible and effective response of local authorities to the pandemic on a number of fronts. However, to the extent that these allocations will be clawed back through cutting back homeless allocations for the rest of the year will mean the benefits are short-lived. Nevertheless, this is further evidence that policies which preferentially allocate social housing to homeless households are one of the most effective measures, particularly for the long-term homeless.
A further policy that is worth mentioning is the level of effective collaboration between Government, the health service, homeless organisations and local authorities during the pandemic. Such collaboration is often characterized as about personal relationships and personalities, and while these are important, it is also a matter of public policy. Again, the pandemic experience adds to overwhelming evidence that such policies of collaboration are an essential component of effective approaches to tackling homelessness.
There is every likelihood that the homeless numbers are likely to increase in the September monthly figures as the evictions which were postponed by the moratorium are carried out and temporary solutions arranged during lockdown break down. The enormous impact of COVID-19 on how we work, travel and socialise will likely last for a long time, while protections for people at risk of evictions and rent hikes have already been lifted. The total number of people in emergency accommodation is currently at its lowest level since 2017, a direct result of the cooperation and preventive measures during the lockdown. We should do everything we can to make this achievement permanent.
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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.
Having access to accurate numbers is key to informing policy and services responses designed to tackle homelessness. It is equally vital to have the information behind the numbers to be able to clearly understand trends as they develop.