Review of 7 years of spending on homelessness shows it’s time to change

Author: Mike Allen

In the first Special Edition of our Focus on Homelessness series, we are looking at Expenditure on Services for Households Experiencing Homelessness. In this blog post, Director of Advocacy Mike Allen outlines why we need a deeper understanding of this, and how this Edition does this.

The first edition of our new of Focus on Homelessness series took established data and presented a picture which was familiar but nevertheless shocking – everyone who has been paying attention already knew that the number of people who were homeless had quadrupled since 2014. But pulling all the data together helped us get perspective on where we are and invited us to look afresh at what has become an over-familiar disaster.

This edition, the first Special, delves into the same published reports to show not just how much we are spending, but what we are spending it on. Again the fact that mass homelessness is expensive in terms of cash, as well as human misery, should not be a surprise to anyone. But behind that headline, there is a story which is less well understood, and offers us an opportunity for radical change.

At first sight, the stand-out fact of this publication is that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the local authorities together spent just over €883.2m on all forms of homeless services over the seven years between 2013 to 2019, and we are spending five times as much now as we were back then.

But the more important story is in the detail. As the risk of homelessness rose each month over the last number of years, the primary response was not to invest in prevention (covered in Category 1 of spending) or other solutions, but to channel whatever new resources were available into more and more emergency accommodation (Category 2).

The value of emergency shelter is that provides a humanitarian response, and ensures that people who are homeless are not forced to sleep rough, the most extreme – and repugnant – form of homelessness. The problem with providing emergency shelter is that the underlying issues which a person faces in the evening when they go into the homeless shelter remain unchanged when they wake to face another day. I don’t just mean the fairly obvious point that providing emergency shelter does nothing to tackle the underlying societal causes of the homelessness problem – such as high rents, housing insecurity, insufficiency of mental health and addiction supports. I also mean that providing emergency accommodation does nothing to change the situation of the particular individual or family themselves. We have to repeat tomorrow the support we gave today. In the terms that are used in other areas of social policy, particular labour market interventions to help the unemployed, providing emergency accommodation is essentially a ‘passive measure.’

Of course, homeless NGO’s provide a range of supports – primarily ‘key working’ or ‘case management’ – which aim to use the opportunity provided by providing shelter to assist the individual in resolving the problem. This is important, but I think all homeless NGOs will agree that they have been increasingly hard pressed to provide such supports for all clients as the homeless numbers rise.

And of course, one of the key messages of this report is that homeless NGOs are only part of the picture and indeed are an increasingly small part of the picture, as finances have increasingly been channelled to private providers of emergency accommodation. These are for-profit, private companies or individuals who rent hotel rooms, B&Bs or dormitories to local authorities. In 2013, just under 40% of spending on emergency accommodation was accounted for by private providers, largely for so-called B&Bs for families, amounting to some €11m. Just six years later, the expenditure on private emergency accommodation has grown by the sort of figure which makes nonsense of percentages – so shall we say that for every €1 paid to private providers in 2013 we paid over €11 in 2019. So almost €123m or nearly 2/3 of all expenditure on emergency accommodation is going to for-profit providers. The quality of physical accommodation and household services which these private operates provide varies, but they have one thing in common – they are not concerned with helping to end the homelessness of the people they accommodate. Sometimes, homeless NGOs are funded by local authorities to provide support to households in such private emergency accommodation (for instance the Focus Ireland Family Homeless Action Team is funded by Dublin Region Homeless Executive to provide such support in Hubs operated by private entities) but such expenditure is accounted for under Category 1, so it is safe to say that this massive increase in Category 2 expenditure is almost entirely passive – that is, it makes no contribution to solving the problem. We will have to repeat tomorrow the support – and the expenditure – we gave today.

There are a number of reasons for this situation. One of the factors is a widespread misunderstanding of homelessness as equating to rough sleeping. Despite the fact that rough sleeping accounts for only around 1 in every 100 persons who is homeless, media coverage of any form of homelessness is routinely accompanied by a picture of a person in a sleeping bag. Irish people care deeply about homelessness, but when that caring equates homelessness with rough sleeping the resulting political pressure means we end up with more and more homeless shelters instead of more homes.

Another factor is the urgency of need. On any given night, faced with thousands of people who have nowhere to sleep, the best thing you can do is provide them with somewhere safe and warm to stay. Focus Ireland staff, along with local authority staff and the workers and volunteers in Simon, DePaul, the McVerry Trust and all the other homeless organisations move heaven and earth each day to achieve that. We are proud of this work and it is impossible to argue against it. But the following night, exactly the same problem exists, perhaps a little worse, and we perform what appear to be miracles again. It is only when we are able to look back on 2,557 nights that we see the daily miracles have changed nothing and that we should have had a better plan, and we could have spent our time and resources to a better end.

The publication of this report, and the appointment of a new Government and new Minister give us the opportunity to put that right.

Before I finish, I think it is important to spend a couple of moments on Figure 8 and 9 in the report. The first edition of Focus on Homelessness set out in stark terms how homelessness quadrupled from 2014 to 2019, so it is not surprising to see that expenditure rose over the same period. But we see not only an increase in the total number of emergency beds, but also the cost per bed. Figure 8 shows that the average cost of providing emergency accommodation more than doubled from just over €14,300 in 2014 to nearly €31,000 in 2019. The editorial policy of Focus on Homelessness is to stick to the figures, putting them into the public domain for interpretation or analysis in pieces such as this. In this case no analysis would be possible anyway, as the data is provided. But it is an important question.

One potential explanation is that there has been an increase in quality of accommodation, but there is nothing published which would calibrate such an increase and, anecdotally, there are different trends evident, with some higher quality emergency accommodation coming on stream along with some lower standard provision – particularly for singles. Furthermore, it has also sometimes been claimed that the higher quality accommodation is less expensive. Some of the explanation must simply be that cost, somewhat ironically, tracks the increase in domestic rents which is itself driving homelessness in the first place. A related factor must also be the weakened bargaining position of local authorities as they try to provide shelter, under pressure, in an increasingly competitive markets. Significantly, the data does not tell us how the doubling of bed costs is spread across the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.

However, at least part of the increase in cost per bed results from the controversial ‘re-categorisation’ of homeless families over the last two years. Some families in certain types of emergency accommodation were reclassified as ‘not homeless’. Yet, as we have previously noted, their accommodation must still be paid for out of the ‘homeless funds’ which are reported here. The result is that we are spending homeless funding to accommodate household which we are then not counting as homeless, so misleadingly ourselves by over-stating the unit cost. Because of the way the data is now published, it is impossible to tell whether this is a significant or marginal factor.

However, this again highlights that one of the early priorities of the new Minister must be to bring together a broad expert group to review how we collate data – and to restore broad trust that the published information reflects reality and tells us what we need to know.

But, if we want to urgently resolve the confusion about how we count homelessness, it is so that we can spend our energies looking at the much more important issues, primarily, how can we spend our resources more effectively to reduce homelessness rather than just manage it. Thinking about our expenditure as either ‘active’ in solving the problem or ‘passive’, in just dealing with the daily humanitarian necessity of shelter, is part of the solution. We then need to work together to shift expenditure towards active interventions, capable of ending homelessness for individual people and reducing the overall level of homelessness in our society. Without that change of approach we will be trapped in the spiral of spending increasing resources on interventions that make no lasting difference beyond the night on which they are spent.

You can download “Focus on Homelessness Vol.2: Public Expenditure on Services for Households Experiencing Homelessness” here.

 

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