Homelessness is at a higher rate in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK, research has revealed.
One in 18 (5.7%) of all adults in the province said they had experienced homelessness, with 1.4% saying this had happened in the last five years.
The landmark research said that rising numbers of people in Northern Ireland could be left at risk of homelesness unless the Assembly takes action to protect the most vulnerable.
The first report of its kind, the Homelessness Monitor Northern Ireland, showed that the proportion of people in the UK without a roof over their heads is highest in the province.
There were 13.4 statutory acceptances per 1,000 households compared to 2.3 in England.
Young people, social renters, single people and lone parent households were more likely to have been homeless.
It also showed that official homelessness figures have remained at historically high levels since 2005/6 due to the collapse of the housing market. And in 2012/13, 19,400 households were presented as homeless.
In Northern Ireland in 2010 there were an estimated 123,000 cases where families or single adults were living within another household, but were believed to be seeking separate accommodation. That figure is roughly equivalent to 17% of all households.
This is 4% points higher than the UK-wide figure. The study – carried out by Heriot-Watt University, the University of York and University of New South Wales for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and charity Crisis – said that while the flow of homelessness cases had remained steady in recent years, the use of temporary accommodation has been rising, with placements increasing by 11% in the two years to 2012/13.
It warns that with mounting pressure on social housing and large scale upheavals to benefits, there is a real danger that homelessness in Northern Ireland could begin to rise, particularly as the economy remains fragile.
The research comes at a time when the Assembly is undertaking a review of housing policy and researchers say there is now a window of opportunity to safeguard services for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
Through the Welfare Reform Bill there are proposals to break up the Northern Ireland Housing Executive – sparking major concerns about the delivery of homeless services.
The shift from Disability Living Allowance to the new Personal Independence Payment for working age claimants raises concerns in Northern Ireland where just over one in 10 of the population are in receipt of DLA; more than twice the average level across the UK.
Julia Unwin, chief executive of JRF, said: "There is now a real opportunity to provide low-cost, good quality homes to meet the needs of the poorest. Failure to do this risks pushing more people into increasing financial hardship and homelessness."
The Homelessness Monitor will continue to track developments until 2015.
"Northern Ireland faces a period of flux, with upheavals to the welfare system, rising pressure on social housing and sweeping reviews of policy.
"It is critical that the Assembly monitors homelessness and safeguards services in this time of radical change. Crisis is concerned that for many people struggling on low incomes, these changes could be the tipping point that places them at risk of homelessness."
Leslie Morphy, chief executive of Crisis
John is 32 and had been living in a park before being helped by the Simon Community. He has learning and behavioural difficulties, which resulted in him becoming homeless.
"I was sleeping rough in a park in north Belfast for two months. I would just walk about during the day and could even get food and tea from kind people, but the night was a different story. People didn't really know that I was homeless, they just thought that I hadn't got a job and was down on my luck. I had difficulties getting on with my family and I was thrown out at 22.
"I didn't know where to go so I just walked from west to north Belfast, and one night realised that the bench was the only place I could sleep.
"Gangs hung about in the area and I've been punched and kicked on a couple of occasions.
"One time was so bad that someone intervened and I was put in hospital. But this episode was actually the turning point and the nurses there were able to get me in touch with Simon Community, and I lived there for the next couple of years.
"The hostel gave me a safe and warm bed, a locked door and family environment.
"The staff helped me get in touch with other charities that helped me with my condition.
"They also helped me get in touch with my family again.
"And I have just completed a course and I've secured a part-time job."