£600k guest house bill for 1,400 placements homeless people in Northern Ireland
The Housing Executive spent over £600,000 in three years lodging homeless people in specialist accommodation such as hotels and guest houses.
More than 1,400 placements were made in what the organisation described as "non-standard" premises - at an average cost of nearly £440.
Homeless charities have raised concerns about reliance on accommodation such as B&Bs, saying it highlights the lack of social housing in Northern Ireland.
Ricky Rowledge, the director of the Council for the Homeless Northern Ireland, said: "The 2002 NI Audit Report on homelessness showed extensive use by the Housing Executive of B&B accommodation and recommended that it move away from putting people in B&Bs.
"Not only is it horrendously expensive, it is also a bad solution for people."
A Freedom of Information request shows that from April 2014 to April 2017, the Housing Executive spent £615,896 on stays in "non-standard" accommodation - typically hotels and B&Bs.
In that three-year period there were 1,402 placements - meaning an average stay costs £439.
A breakdown shows:
- In 2014/15, the Housing Executive spent £170,585 on 462 placements;
- In 2015/16, that figure rose substantially to £287,104 spent on 618 stays;
- And in 2016/17, £158,207 was spent on 322 placements.
In some cases an individual or family was responsible for more than one placement.
In 2016/17 the 322 stays comprised 218 different homeless people or households - an average of nearly £500 per stay or £725 per homeless case.
At the end of October this year, the average stay in non-standard B&B accommodation was just under three weeks.
The majority of those lodged in non-standard accommodation are applicants presenting as homeless who are awaiting the outcome of the Housing Executive's decision on their application, or applicants who meet the criteria but for whom no immediate permanent accommodation is available.
In exceptional circumstances, Housing Executive tenants who require temporary emergency accommodation due to issues such as flooding or fire may also be housed in non-standard accommodation.
On March 31, 2017 there were 37,611 applicants on the Housing Executive's waiting list - 23,694 were in housing stress.
The average wait for a Housing Executive or Housing Association home was 22 months.
Ms Rowledge said: "The Housing Executive has a duty to provide housing for applicants, and in some areas of Northern Ireland there is no temporary accommodation, so B&Bs may be the only option.
"Even if it were the case that there were vacancies among the Housing Executive's stock, they might be in difficult-to-let areas of anti-social behaviour, or they may not be suitable for family size.
"The key issue is that housing has always been a Cinderella service - we don't have enough houses of the right size in the right area that people can afford among housing stock.
"Guest houses are expensive and obviously there is no other option - it's absolutely the wrong place to put anybody. But what else are they going to do?
"If they are going to fulfil their duty under law, they need to continue to use B&Bs.
"There needs to be more investment to secure more social housing for Northern Ireland."
Tony McQuillan, director of Shelter NI, agreed that the "fundamental problem" was a shortage of social housing across Northern Ireland.
"For the third year in a row we have had a record level of Full Duty Applicants to the Housing Executive, which I think is because we don't have enough social housing available to let," he said.
"We don't have enough housing in the right areas - north and west Belfast, parts of Derry, even south Down, Newry and south Armagh don't have the numbers, and not enough social housing is being built.
"If you have a homeless person in immediate need, and that's the only thing available, there is no other choice but to put people into expensive accommodation.
"I'm not shocked at the money being spent on non-standard accommodation by the Housing Executive, although I would have hoped it would be less."
A Housing Executive spokesperson said it "usually" used hotels or bed and breakfasts for non-standard accommodation, but may also use other types of accommodation for larger emergencies, such as student accommodation outside of term time.
The spokesperson added: "The Housing Executive has a duty to provide accommodation for households who present as homeless and require interim accommodation, as well as those who are found to have met the criteria as defined by homelessness legislation.
"We use non-standard accommodation in exceptional circumstances - mostly for households who find themselves in emergency situations - and for as short a duration as possible.
"Housing Executive homes would not be used for the same purpose as non-standard accommodation. We do not use our homes as temporary accommodation as they are only for permanent housing.
"It should be noted that the Housing Executive has one of the lowest levels of vacant homes for any social landlord in the UK.
"It should also be noted that expenditure on homeless support, services and accommodation over the same period (over the last three years) is over £100m. The amount spent on non-standard accommodation is less than 0.6% of the entire homelessness budget."