Belfast Telegraph

Homeless figures ignoring the cold reality on the ground: charity

Anna Maguire

GOVERNMENT statistics ignore a vulnerable group of people who find themselves homeless repeatedly, a charity has claimed.

The Simon Community said the "narrow" Government definition of people who are regularly homeless is skewing policy-making and funding for a rising problem.

The charity raised its concerns after a survey of 111 people living in 13 of its hostels found 55% had been homeless more than once.

That figure is more than five times higher than the Housing Executive's statistics, which have put repeated homelessness at just under 10% in Northern Ireland since 2008, the start of the economic downturn.

That figure is used by the Department for Social Development and other Government bodies. Repeat homelessness is defined by the Housing Executive as someone who presents as homeless twice in the same year.

But Michael Moore, a project worker with the Simon Community, said the narrow definition is masking a starkly different reality on the ground.

Speaking during Homelessness Awareness Week – which runs until Friday – he said Government statistics conceal the true extent of a rising problem in the province.

A total of 4,623 households presented to the Housing Executive as homeless between April and June. However, the Housing Executive does not quantify the number of people within homeless families, giving little insight into the scale of people experiencing the problem.

In 2012/2013, 1,882 individuals approached the Simon Community seeking a temporary home. The charity has 320 beds at any one time. More than 28,600 calls were also made to the charity's freephone helpline during 2012/13, a sharp increase on two years ago.

"The reality of homelessness is being masked by the Housing Executive's system of measurement, so there is no way for policy-makers and the Government to assess whether their homeless policies are effective," Mr Moore said.

"You cannot solve a problem if you do not know the reality of the situation. Our findings show that there is a large sub-group of the population experiencing repeated homelessness at a much larger rate, and their needs are not being taken into account.

"Our research suggests that while Government policy states that 'no one should remain in transitional accommodation any longer than they need to', 62% of our respondents had been homeless for over six months, with almost one-in-five being homeless for over two years."

The DSD said the Housing Executive's definition of repeat homelessness is similar to that used by authorities across the UK. A DSD spokeswoman pointed to an ongoing partnership group with the Simon Community – adding that the department will consider all research documents.

This week local homeless people will launch an action plan for the Executive to tackle homelessness over the coming year. Tomorrow's event, Homeless Not Voiceless: Human Rights Participation And Change, will also hear the full findings of a survey and research in to homelessness.

The initiative is being led by the Homeless Action Group, a partnership between the Simon Community and Participation and Practice of Rights, founded by the late human rights activist Inez McCormack.

Homeless Not Voiceless: Human Rights Participation And Change will take place from 1-4pm at Grosvenor Hall in Belfast.

BACKGROUND

Breakdown in family relationships was the driving factor among nearly half (45%) of 1,882 people who presented as homelessness to the Simon Community in 2012/13. This was followed by relationship breakdown (10.7%), domestic violence (2.1%), eviction or repossession (3.5%), and inability to pay the mortgage or rent (2.8%).

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