When Louisa Santoro, CEO of the Mendicity Institution, a homeless day centre in the city, heard an item on the radio in April revealing a fall in people sleeping rough, she was surprised, she said.
But by mid-March, staff at the Mendicity Institution had already been encountering a rising number of homeless asylum seekers who had visibly slept outside, says Santoro.
Media reports since January had pointed to homeless asylum seekers on the streets. How could the numbers sleeping outside be dropping?
“That can’t be true,” Santoro recalls thinking.
Twice a year over seven nights, the DRHE – which manages homeless services on behalf of the four Dublin local authorities – commissions a count of people sleeping rough on the streets of the capital.
It does this “to measure the level of street homelessness in the Dublin Region to enhance our understanding of the reasons for rough sleeping”, according to a recent DRHE report.
The data is regularly referenced by homeless organisations. It is used by those planning services, and is widely reported in the media – as it was that day when Santoro tuned in.
But emails exchanged between Dublin Simon Community, which conducts the count, and the DRHE last November suggest that the official rough sleeper count does not in fact count everyone who is sleeping on the streets.
The Simon Community outreach team said it had met 180 people sleeping rough in one week in November 2022 and submitted that number to the DRHE, emails show. But the official rough sleeper count released by the DRHE said that there were 91.
A spokesperson for the DRHE said: “The count is not a crude ‘head count’.”
“The methodology for counting individuals sleeping rough is framed around the identification of entrenched rough sleepers in the Dublin region, who when identified, can then be supported through the Housing First programme,” said the spokesperson.
(Housing First is a programme to house people who are long-term homeless including those with a long history of sleeping outside. )
Santoro says that the reasoning is mumbo jumbo. “Given that it is called a rough sleeper count most people would be surprised to find out that is not what it is.”
Anti-homeless campaigner Father Peter McVerry said that the explanation doesn’t make much sense. “Either there were 180 individuals sleeping rough or not.”
The Dublin Simon Community previously referred queries about the rough sleeper count to the DRHE.
Why count rough sleepers?
A guidance document published by the DRHE in December 2017 does give a much broader justification for the rough-sleeper count than identifying those who have been sleeping long-term on the streets.
The point of counting those sleeping rough is “to measure the effectiveness of the regional services, plan for additional services and provide targeted help for those in need of accommodation and support services”, it says.
The count provides evidence to inform operations and policy decisions, it says. Also, “the data gathered through enumeration is used to track progress towards the goal of eliminating the need to sleep rough”.
Says Fr McVerry: “I think the rough sleeper count was started many years ago to get a sense of how many emergency beds were needed, to find out why people chose to sleep rough and how the system could better respond.”
He says that the rough-sleeper count could never identify all people sleeping out in the Dublin region. People could be hidden in the Phoenix Park, which is too large to search thoroughly, or in derelict buildings, he says.
People also sleep in the hallways of apartment complexes, where they won’t be spotted, he says.
“What I think is important is that the same methodology is used at each count so that the trends are identifiable,” he says. “Is the number going up or down and is there a change in the gender or age of those sleeping rough?”
Santoro says there is a need for robust data to address rough sleeping and the count should aim to discover why those on the streets are not in accommodation.
Homeless people have no choice as to which hostel they are placed in, and some accommodation is totally unsuitable, says Santoro.
She recently advocated for someone in a wheelchair who had been allocated accommodation up several flights of stairs, and so ended up sleeping rough, she says.
“There could be a good reason why someone doesn’t want to go to a specific place,” Santoro says.
The figures released publicly by the DRHE in March, and before that in November, suggest that there was a fall in the number of people sleeping on the streets.
But the November emails between the DRHE and Dublin Simon Community, giving a glimpse of how the counts’ findings are treated, confuse that analysis.
From 7 to 13 November 2022, the Dublin Simon Community outreach team organised a count of rough sleepers across the Dublin region.
They searched the entire county to find anyone who might be sleeping rough in isolated areas, employing extra volunteers and consulting with council staff and gardaí, says a report on the effort.
“During the course of the week-long count, the Outreach team encountered 91 individuals, of which 87 (96%) had PASS IDs,” it says. Meaning four didn’t have PASS IDs.
PASS is the homeless accommodation database for Ireland. People who have jumped the bureaucratic hurdles set out by councils, and successfully registered as homeless, will be on that system.
However, the emails sent in November from staff in the DRHE to staff in the Dublin Simon Community suggest the outreach team met 180 people sleeping outside in the week of the count, 39 of whom did not have PASS IDs.
“The DRHE Research team … has reviewed the [rough sleeper count] data for November and can confirm that the data submitted to the DRHE shows that there were total n180 individuals encountered as rough sleeping,” wrote Pathie Maphosa, a senior staff officer in the DRHE to a staff member in Dublin Simon Community.
Of those counted, 128 had used homeless services before and had a number assigned to them on the PASS database, the emails said.
Another 39 rough sleepers gave their names to outreach workers and didn’t have a registered ID on PASS, shows a table in one of the emails.
There were 13 people sleeping rough whose names the staff members didn’t get, according to the emails. There’s the possibility that they could also be among the 128 or the 39 and so accounted for already, the emails note.
But even if those who did not provide a name were excluded from the data, that would leave 167 named people sleeping rough in one week of November 2022.
The spokesperson for the DRHE did not clearly say who was eliminated from the count and why.
She said that, following the count, the DRHE meets with the outreach team “to reconcile the data and come to a conclusive number of individuals sleeping rough in the Dublin Region”.
“The reconciliation meeting involves combining information from the outreach teams on the individuals listed as sleeping rough,” she says.
That allows them to eliminate double counting and cross-checking information on PASS, she says. “Individuals might be known to the Outreach team as rough sleepers but were using emergency accommodation or in Housing First at the time of the count.”
“The converse is also true,” says the DRHE spokesperson. “A Housing First tenant might have returned to rough sleeping. This is why both teams are brought together to ensure completeness of the information insofar as possible.”
“Individuals who have been recorded in a previous count are targeted for the Housing First programme,” she said.
According to the official winter rough sleeper count report, one person with an active tenancy and 20 with bookings in emergency accommodation were included in the final figures.
(Dublin Simon Community staff advocated for people sleeping rough who had a spot booked in a hostel to be included in the data.)
The winter rough sleeper count report last November also said there were three people who were from outside of the EU sleeping rough. While in March, they counted two people who were from outside of the EU and sleeping rough.
Around the same time, on 9 March, a spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality said that 217 asylum seekers had not been offered accommodation by the International Protection Accommodation Services which is in charge of providing shelter for those seeking asylum.
Santoro says that for years, many people working in voluntary services have queried the rough-sleeper count figures, saying that they appeared low compared with the numbers they see on the streets. “The figures that they released are half of the true number.”
The explanation provided by the DRHE sheds little light. Anyone who gave their name is very unlikely to have been counted twice. “There appears to be no rational explanation for the elimination of so many people from the figures,” she says. “It’s inexplicable.”
Whether someone is sleeping outside on a given night is a matter of fact and not of opinion, she says. “It raises questions about all their data and statements as it is so misleading.”
Aleksandrs Gutorovics says that he isn’t surprised that the DRHE published a report with dubious data about the number of rough sleepers.
Gutorovics slept outside in October, November and in the early part of December 2020 and during that time he met the Dublin Simon outreach team repeatedly.
They were sound, he says, but they couldn’t help him as he had been assessed as having been from Galway. When he requested his data he found that all those meetings were not being recorded on the PASS system.
Speaking by phone on Tuesday, Gutorovics says that his guess is that anyone who the council assesses as not being from Dublin doesn’t get counted.
But without a clear explanation from DRHE, it’s hard to know.
“The council is not being straight up about this,” says Gutorovics. “It looks bad for them.”