Dr Sarah Sheridan, Research Officer, Focus Ireland
Since 2014, the increase in the number of families entering homelessness in Ireland has been steady and unprecedented. In July 2014, there were 344 families experiencing homelessness across the country and, by December 2017, this figure had more than trebled to 1,408 families with more than 3,000 dependent children.
The growth in family homelessness has led to some discernible shifts in the profile of the homeless population; while, in 2011, women comprised approximately 33% of the total homeless population, by December 2017, this proportion had increased to 44%. Furthermore, published statutory monthly statistics on families living in emergency accommodation consistently show that 60-65% of all families are headed by a lone parent (compared to only 15% of the general population, according to 2016 Census).
Almost all of these households are female-headed1. The gendered nature of family homelessness is also apparent in other European countries. For example, a recent comparative report conducted by the European Observatory on Homelessness found that “lone women, with their children, are the bulk of the population who experience family homelessness” (p.76)2.
In response to a paucity of published evidence on the causes or drivers of family homelessness in Ireland, in early 2016, Focus Ireland initiated regular data collection with families presenting to its services as homeless. This analysis is disseminated via a collection of research papers entitled the Insights into Family Homelessness Series, which are all easily accessible on Focus Ireland website.
These data capture the reason for families’ loss of their last stable home which, importantly, may not be the last place they stayed since families often reside temporarily with friends or family members for varying periods of time before they present as homeless. Since March 2016, 248 newly-homeless families have so far been surveyed, with data collection repeated on a quarterly basis.
A core aim of the research is to capture respondents’ previous four accommodations and their reasons for leaving these accommodations. The data collected therefore document the causes of family homelessness whilst also providing an indicator of the degree of stability (or not) of the families’ housing histories. The data analysed so far confirm that:
- 68% (n=169) of the families reported that their last stable accommodation was in the private rented sector.
- 61% (n=152) of the families reported stable housing histories characterised by lengthy tenancies, typically spanning many years in each accommodation.
- The most common reason given by families for their homelessness was landlords leaving the market (i.e. the landlord selling or giving property to family member, or less frequently, following bank repossession of the property), which accounted for 33% of the sample (n=82).
- The second most common reason, reported by 11% of families (n=27), was that their rent was unaffordable and/or they had accrued substantial rent arrears3.
- Related to the issue of affordability and difficulties in sourcing alternative accommodation in the private rental market, 82% (n=203) of all respondents were unemployed.
It is evident, therefore, that family homelessness is overwhelmingly driven by structural causes linked to dynamics in the housing market which are, in simple terms, excluding many low income households, a majority of them headed by a single female parent. As outlined earlier, the available demographic data on homelessness shows that female-headed families are disproportionately represented in these low income households. The lack of affordable private rented accommodation and social housing is intimately linked to these processes.
These manifestations of poverty and housing instability – which continue to emerge with striking consistency across each phase of Focus Ireland’s data collection – echoes other research findings in the Irish context. For example, according to newly-published Economic Social Research Institute (ESRI) research, which analysed longitudinal EU-SILC data across 11 countries between 2005-2014, lone parents were categorised as a risk group that demonstrated particularly high rates of consistent deprivation and poverty over time4. This analysis also revealed that Ireland fared the worst in terms of the persistent deprivation gap between lone parents and other working-age adults (26 percentage points compared to an average of 16 in other EU countries).
While a majority of all families (79%) living in emergency accommodation in Ireland are concentrated in the Dublin region, the number of families presenting as homeless is rising in other urban centres throughout the country. Families who are accepted as homeless are placed in commercial hotels, private B&Bs and, increasingly, in congregate emergency facilities called ‘Family Hubs’. The continued expansion of ‘Family Hubs’ or congregate emergency accommodation, which provides therapeutic supports to families, is regarded by some commentators as a “re-naming of what is essentially an institutional response to women’s homelessness” and resonates with Ireland’s lengthy history of institutionalising women who are ‘out-of-home’5. Furthermore, the available research evidence points strongly to a need to discontinue, rather than expand, facilities such as these, which may even serve “to reduce the functioning capacity of families”6. Recent responses and initiatives designed to address the problem of family homelessness in Ireland do not, therefore, appear to follow the recommendations arising from a mounting robust international evidence base.
The European Observatory’s recent comparative analysis of family homelessness in Europe7 indicates that prevention and rapid re-housing are the most appropriate and progressive responses to family homelessness. While the rate of exits from homelessness into tenancies has increased in recent months in the Dublin region8, the continued expansion of emergency facilities for families runs the risk of normalising family homelessness and segregating large numbers of lone mothers and children from their natural networks. By proposing therapeutic solutions to the problem of family homelessness, the establishment and expansion of Family Hubs also inadvertently advances a flawed understanding of the drivers of family homelessness.
1 Sheridan, S. and Hoey, D. (2017) Complete Analysis of All Telephone Surveys with Families that Became Homeless During 2016. Dublin: Focus Ireland. Available at: https://www.focusireland.ie/resource-hub/research/ [Accessed 13 February 2018].
2 European Observatory of Homelessness (2017) Family Homelessness in Europe: A Comparative Study on Homelessness. Brussels: FEANTSA.
3 These findings markedly contrast with 2016 DRHE data in which 51% of families became homeless due to ‘family circumstances’ – such a deviation is clearly linked to the distinct research design as already outlined.
4 Economic Social Research Institute (2018) Poverty Dynamics of Social Risk Groups in the EU: An Analysis of the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions, 2005 to 2014. Dublin: ESRI.
5 Mayock, P. (2017) Women’s Homelessness: Diversity, Dubious Constructions and the Need for Multiple Responses. Presented at: Simon Communities in Ireland Seminar, 2 October 2017.
6 Hearne, R. and Murphy, M. (2017) Investing in the Right to a Home: Housing, HAPs and Hubs. Dublin: Maynooth University.
7 European Observatory of Homelessness (2017) Family Homelessness in Europe: A Comparative Study on Homelessness. Brussels: FEANTSA.
8 Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (2017) Homelessness Performance Report Q3, 2017 – Dublin Region. Available at: http://www.housing.gov.ie/housing/homelessness/other/homelessness-performance-report-q3-2017-dublin [Accessed 13 February 2018].