If the homelessness crisis looks bad to you now, just consider this: the governments statistics don’t include lots of people you might consider homeless.
Men living in tents hidden deep inside parks. Young people crashing on friends’ floors and couches. Women and children staying briefly in domestic-violence refuges. And many others.
But, according to Rosi Leonard, spokesperson for the Home Sweet Home campaign, the government agreed during negotiations over Apollo House to start to count these “hidden homeless”.
“The commitment that was made was that the hidden homeless would be factored into the figures of homelessness,” says Leonard. (The Department of Housing did not respond to emails or a call to confirm that by the time this was published.)
So who are the hidden homeless? Why should the government count them? And how would they go about it?
Broadly speaking, the hidden homeless are those who do not have a secure place to live – but are not in emergency accommodation or visibly sleeping rough.
They are not counted in Ireland’s homelessness statistics, and there is no significant research into how many of them there are here.
But research commissioned by the homeless charity Crisis in the UK found that 62 percent of homeless people surveyed there were hidden homeless.
And it’s certainly possible to count the hidden homeless.
The Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Sweden collect regular data on several categories of hidden homeless people.
The Danish have the broadest definition, which includes people staying with families or friends, and homeless people due to be released from institutions.
Why Count Them?
“Policy makers need to get a sense of the scale of the problem in order to be able to address it,” says Allen, director of advocacy at Focus Ireland.
If we don’t have accurate homelessness statistics, it is impossible to pitch the right levels of services, Allen says. “Politicians need to be aware that the problem is considerably worse than the figures suggest.”
Otherwise, as you house those who are officially homeless “very quickly their places are filled by people who were previously in hidden homelessness”, he says.
“Homelessness is more of a process than a fixed state of affairs,” says Ruth Owen, a policy coordinator for the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA).
“People tend to move between various precarious living situations: stay with friends for a while, stay in a squat, then end up sleeping rough,” says Owen.
Allen says that most of the families that come into Focus Ireland’s services have gone through a period of hidden homelessness first.
“There is a myth that people go, ‘Oh, I’m homeless, I’ll go down to the council,'” says Allen. But that’s not usually how it happens.
“What we find is that families do everything they possibly can to stay out of homeless services,” he says.
Who Is Counted Now?
The definition on homelessness in the 1988 Housing Act is quite broad. It says that a person should be regarded by a housing authority as being homeless if:
“There is no accommodation available which, in the opinion of the authority, he (…) can reasonably occupy or remain in occupation of (…) and he is, in the opinion of the authority, unable to provide accommodation from his own resources.” Or if that person is in emergency accommodation.
But at the moment, the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) tallies up those who are homeless in the Dublin region simply by counting rough sleepers and the total numbers in emergency accommodation.
Who Is Left Out?
If you define homelessness more broadly, there are several groups left out by the DRHE’s methodology that could be included in homelessness figures.
In 2015, 4,357 people stayed in domestic-violence refuges throughout Ireland, according to TUSLA spokesperson Eleanor Reidy. But they were not counted in the homeless figures, according to Allen.
Couch-surfers, those who squat out of necessity, and people in domestic violence refuges would also be included.
And there are, of course, others living in warehouses and cars. There are also people in tents and rough sleepers who try to hide from authorities so they don’t have to move on.
Likewise, there are Travellers who live on unofficial sites, often without access to electricity or running water, because they cannot gain access to official halting sites or housing, due to shortages of both. There were 87 such families recorded in Dublin at the end of 2015.
A grey area exists around families who become homeless and then have to double-up with a relative and their family – often in severely over-crowded conditions. They are usually not recognised as being homeless, says Leonard.
“They are told that they are housed, because they have a roof over their head, regardless of how severe the over crowding is,” she says.
Broadening the Count
A spokesperson for DRHE said that they count people who sleep rough twice a year.
“We rely on local knowledge as well as intel from Dublin’s Housing First Team to ensure that all persons are counted (i.e. persons that are living in tents etc),” she said, by email.
But there are ways to broaden the system for counting the homeless, and even expand it to include those in unstable conditions who some might argue are homeless, while others wouldn’t – but regardless need to be counted to support informed policy.
FEANTSA has come up with a way to count four types of homelessness and insecure housing: 1) rooflessness or sleeping rough; 2) houselessness, which means living in a hostel or institution; 3) living in insecure housing; and 4) living in inadequate housing.
The last two categories are considered to be “hidden homeless” in some European countries, but not others.
Dublin-based homeless charities such as Depaul, Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust all support this model for counting the homeless.
But for now, Allen says Focus Ireland plans to work on a rougher kind of estimate of all hidden homeless people in the near future. “An estimate could be arrived at by doing a survey of people who are already in emergency accommodation about their homeless trajectory,” he says.
The amount of time that they spent in hidden homelessness could be used to estimate the current number who are hidden homeless, he said.
FEANTSA’s Owen says that the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden collect regular and wide-ranging data on several categories of “hidden homelessness”.
For example, twice a year, since 2007, the Danish National Centre for Social Research has conducted a national survey on homelessness.
“The counts are conducted by asking all local services and authorities who are in contact with, or have knowledge about homeless people to fill out a two-page individual questionnaire for each homeless person during a ‘count week’,” says Owen.
The survey is comprehensive, covering homeless shelters, addiction treatment centres, psychiatric facilities, municipal social centres, job centres, and social drop-in cafés.
Double-counting is avoided by cross-referencing with personal registration numbers, initials, birth dates and other information.
Will It Happen Here?
Allen doesn’t think it’s likely that Dublin will start counting its hidden homeless anytime soon.
“It’s only since 2014 that we managed to get them to count the official homeless,” he says. “That took us 20 years.”
“Since 2014, we no longer have to dispute whether homelessness is getting worse. It allows the debate to move on to look at solutions,” says Allen.
Take the housing assistance payment (HAP), for example. That was introduced because it was possible to demonstrate that homelessness was getting worse, he says.
Allen says that some people who are not in temporary accommodation, like couch-surfers, should be eligible to get on the council’s homeless list already.
Couch-surfers will have to work hard to convince the council though, especially if they are young, he said. “They may have to answer a lot of personal questions.”
“But if they can convince the council they have legitimate reasons why they cannot live in the parental home, they might be able to get on it.”
He thinks that the families and women in domestic-violence refuges will be the next cohort added to the homeless figures.