Understanding the December 2019 homeless figures – Part 1

Author: Mike Allen

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. This information acts to clearly highlight what is working and what needs to improve. To this end, we have developed this blog which seeks to help our understanding of the most recent figures.

December 2019 saw an unprecedented drop in the number of people recorded as accessing emergency accommodation during the Christmas week. The overall number of people in emergency accommodation dropped by 717 between November and December. There were month-on-month decreases across all demographic and accommodation categories represented in the Department of Housing’s reports.

A fall in family homelessness had been expected in December, as there is an established seasonal pattern of fewer families entering homelessness, with some families temporarily staying with friends or families at Christmas time. But the fall in December 2019 was much greater than expected. As the publication date of the December figures fell within the election period, commentary on the meaning of the reduction ran the risk of being interpreted as taking one side or another in the electoral debate. With voting now over, Focus Ireland is publishing a detailed analysis and this blog to help deepen a common understanding of a significant fall in homelessness.

Children and families

Every year the annual trends typically show a fall in the number of children in families who are homeless from November to December. In 2019, the fall was the highest recorded, dropping by 330 nationally with 229 of these families in Dublin.

November-December changes in child homelessness, 2016 – 2019

While this drop is larger than previous years, it not disproportionate to what we might have expected. The number of children in emergency accommodation rose dramatically since the start of the crisis, but had levelled off since around February 2018. The drop in December, while unusually large, is likely a combination of this overall slowdown and the usual seasonal December drop in figures.

The overall drop in family homelessness is expected at this time of year, particularly because December figures are collected over the Christmas week, when families are most likely to try to stay elsewhere. The quarterly report shows a decrease in the net number of families entering emergency accommodation and a fall in the number of families leaving emergency accommodation.

Single Adults Without Children

Although the number of families homeless fell as expected, the most notable drop in numbers was in fact among single adults without children. The significant factor here is that in previous years the number of single adults homeless has risen during December. However, this total sharply declined by 180 people in December 2019. (Dublin accounted for 101 of this total.)
In previous years the annual seasonal fall in family homelessness in December has been counterbalanced by the seasonal increase in the number of single adults who are homeless. What appears to be unique in December 2019 is that the seasonal rise in single adult homeless did not happen and in fact went in the opposite direction. The number of single adults homeless dropped and this was the main reason for the dramatic fall in the overall total number of people who were homeless in December 2019.

Explanation for the December decrease in homelessness

Most of the public discussion of the decline in homelessness included a recognition that the number of families who are homeless usually falls at Christmas, with the assumption that this was simply a more extreme example.
In line with most media coverage, RTE reported Department of Housing officials saying: “the decrease in homeless numbers can be explained by housing units being completed in the final quarter of 2019, with a 49% increase in local authority housing last year.

However, the Department of Housing Quarterly Report for Q4 2019, published along with the December figures, does not support this explanation. The report showed that 1,068 people exited homelessness in Q4 2019. However, the number of exits is in line – more or less – with the number of exits in previous quarters where there was no corresponding decrease in the total homeless figures. This clearly suggests that some other factors were at play which caused the sharp decline in the number homeless in December 2019.

Exits from Homelessness by Quarter 2019

Furthermore, since the unexpected decrease in homelessness is among single people, an increase in social housing is not a plausible explanation – unless a large percentage of the new units were single apartments rather than the more usual family units.

The established pattern of increased homelessness among single adults in December is substantially driven by the opening of additional emergency homeless beds at this time of the year – either as temporary ‘cold weather’ provision or as part of the overall increase in emergency accommodation over recent years. This is generally done to reduce the number of people who are rough sleeping or squatting in unsafe places during the cold weather.

Indeed in November, Minister of State for Housing, Damien English announced an increase of 300 beds “with 150 beds already in place and the majority of the 300 beds to be in place before Christmas.” Given the decline in single adult homelessness, a significant number of these beds must have been empty during the relevant period in December, marking a change in the usual, high occupancy rate.

Turning the corner or a blip?

While it is impossible at this stage to fully understand the factors that resulted in the sudden decline in single adult homelessness in December 2019, this is not a reason to assume it is just ‘a blip’. The December decline resulted in 2019 being the first year since 2014 where there has not been an annual increase in the number of people in emergency accommodation.

While the sharpest decline in the figures was in Dublin, the overall figure was impacted by a gentler decline across the regions and across all demographics. This supports the view that the December figure may represent a longer term shift.

However, there are also a number of reasons for caution. One of these is the ongoing heavy reliance on HAP and the private rental market to facilitate exits out of emergency accommodation.

In 2019, 64% of exits from homelessness were into the private rental market. HAP tenancies are not permanent social homes and tenants remain at risk from the same market forces which first fuelled this crisis. The number of people exiting into local authority or approved housing body lettings remains comparatively low and has not increased significantly in 2019, despite an increase in housing unit completions.

More specifically, the December fall relies on two factors. The first of these (the decline in family homelessness) is expected, and also expected to reverse in the January figures. The causes of the second factor (the decline in single person’s homelessness) is still unknown, making it impossible to know if it will reverse.

It is for that reason that this analysis is titled ‘Part 1’ and we will not be able to draft the concluding analysis until, at least, the end of February when we have the figures for January 2020. At that point we might have better insight as to whether the many small positive factors will continue to grow and whether the more dramatic shifts will reverse or not.



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Further Reading

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Understanding the December 2019 homeless figures – Part 1

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.