During 2020 we saw the largest recorded annual fall in homelessness to date, with the number of people in emergency homeless accommodation falling by a massive 2,000 between January and December. But as two recent editions of ‘Focus on Homelessness’ reveal, behind the welcome headline figure there are some disturbing trends. In particular, homelessness among single adult men has risen to new record levels, with most of the increase being in Dublin.
After an election dominated by housing issues and a pandemic which confined the country to our homes for prolonged periods, 2020 was a year which shone a spotlight on the homelessness crisis with renewed urgency. Preventative measures such as rent freezes and a ban on evictions that had long been claimed to be unconstitutional were implemented to great success, and the overall number of people experiencing homelessness in Ireland began to fall.
Our Focus on Homelessness series, which takes a closer look at the available data on homelessness in Ireland and analyses emerging trends, has recently released two special reports: on adult-only households in emergency accommodation (i.e.: adult individuals or couples with no accompanying children) and gender and homelessness. These reports highlight diverging trends: that the headline decrease is being driven by a fall in family homelessness, while adult-only households have not benefitted to the same extent from measures which helped families. Focus on Homelessness uses the term ‘adult-only households’ rather than ‘single people’, to reflect the fact that a proportion of ‘single’ homeless people are in fact ‘couples’, so that there are fewer ‘adult-only households’ than there are homeless individuals, see the full report for this analysis. This approach also reflects the FoH emphasis on homeless households, rather than individuals, as the core measurement of homelessness, as this reflects the number of homes that are required to solve the problem.
There have also been striking differences in the pattern for women and men, with the fall in adult homelessness being almost entirely due to a sharp fall in the number of women in emergency homeless accommodation. Between January and December 2020, the number of women in emergency accommodation decreased by 22%, while for men the decrease was just 6%.
So what is driving this? The best explanation comes from looking at household type. In the year to December 2020, the total number of homeless families had fallen by 37%, but the largest fall was among lone parent families where there was a 42% decrease. Due to the high proportion of lone parents in homelessness, and the fact that almost all of these lone parents are women, the fall in women’s homelessness shown above mirrors the decrease in family homelessness. In 2020, 56 percent of families in emergency accommodation were lone parent families, compared to 25 per cent in the general population. This is still disproportionately large, but is lower than ever previously recorded: from 2014-2016, 65% of homeless families were lone parents.
While family homelessness fell by well over a third during 2020, single adult homelessness increased by almost 10% over the same period. A fall in family homelessness has a much greater impact on the headline homeless figure, as each family household includes on average 3.2 people – with 1,889 fewer ‘family members’ homeless at the end of the year, it was easy to lose sight of the steady increase in homeless single adults. In October 2020, the number of single adults in homelessness reached its highest-ever level with just below 5,000 single adults in emergency accommodation.
There is a further divide between the experience in Dublin and the rest of the country. The graph below shows the number of adults in adult-only households, by gender and Dublin/outside of Dublin. The number of men in adult-only households outside of Dublin had begun to plateau by the start of 2019 – several months before the arrival of Covid-19 and its complex effects. For women in adult-only households outside of Dublin, the plateau began in mid-2017 and actually declined during 2020. In Dublin, however, the number of adults in adult-only households continued to rise throughout 2020 for both men and women. It is already known that Dublin accounts for around ¾ of the total homeless population of Ireland and the majority of homeless families, but the breakdown here also indicates a sharp divergence in trends among single adults over the past two years.
The fall in family homelessness was driven by a fall in the number of families becoming homeless combined with an increase in the numbers exiting. However for adult-only households, this increase in exits was overtaken by the continuously high number of entries to homelessness, resulting in the differing trends for families and adult-only households. 924 adult-only households exited homelessness in 2020, which is an enormous 61% higher than the 575 exits in 2019, but unfortunately is still lower than the stubbornly high number of entries. 1,160 adult only households entered homelessness in 2020, 11% lower than the number of entries in 2019.
We know from Focus Ireland research that prior to the pandemic restrictions, the majority of families becoming homeless had their last stable home in the private rented sector and that tenancies are most frequently ended by landlords on the grounds of moving a family member in or selling or upgrading their property. But we do not know if the same pattern applies to adult-only households. Focus Ireland does not have the necessary data to replicate this research in respect of adult-only families and no public authority with access to the data has published such information.
It is clear from the continued high number of adult-only households entering homelessness that the Covid-related protections for tenants in the private sector did not provide the same level of security for single people as they appear to have done for families. There are many routes into homelessness that do not involve the termination of a lease which may explain this. Focus on Homelessness Vol.4 presents some data on discharges from prison and psychiatric hospitals which shine some light on these issues, but it is likely that family and relationship breakdowns – either where people have no tenancy rights (sofa-surfing, lodging etc.) or where the tenancy is held by one member of a couple – must also be part of the picture.
Single bedroom homes would be the preferred and most affordable accommodation for many of these adult-only households, and the severe shortage of such homes no doubt plays a significant role in the numbers entering homelessness. The continued growth in the number of adult-only households leaving homelessness is a tribute to the effectiveness of NGOs and local authorities during the pandemic, but a stark reminder that no amount of hard work in supporting people out of homelessness can undo the failure of systems that should prevent these people entering homelessness in the first place. The roll out of the Housing First programme continues to be a very positive development for single homeless people – but this intervention comes only after significant and damaging periods of homelessness. We need to do much more to understand the routes into homelessness for single people and to put in place better systems to protect them from homelessness.
Finally, despite the encouraging decreases in the numbers of homeless families, family homelessness still remains at levels which would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and many of the families still remaining in homelessness now are those that require the greatest support. We need to develop a response to homelessness which is robust and sophisticated enough to support everyone who needs it, rather than rushing from one aspect of the crisis to another as it demands attention.
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