Politicians should stop arguing over homelessness figures and fix the system instead
What is it about Fine Gael ministers and housing statistics?
They just can't seem to get it right.
On Thursday’s Tonight Show, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe claimed the Government had increased the stock of social housing last year by 10,000 units and will add a further 11,000 this year.
Figures from the Department of Housing show that the stock only increased by 7870 in 2019 and the target for this year is 8536.
That is a hefty gap of 25 per cent. Surely the Minister for Finance should know these figures?
During the RTÉ leaders’ debate the same night, Leo Varadkar claimed that the number of homeless people was far higher in the North of Ireland.
He claimed that there were over 20,000 people homeless, double the number in the South.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive figures for 2016/17 state that 18,573 households applied for social housing, of which 11,889 were accepted on to the housing list.
While these households are classified in the North as homeless, they are not in emergency accommodation.
In fact, in the North of Ireland, anyone with a housing need, including sofa surfers, those in overcrowded accommodation and those with inappropriate housing, are deemed to be homeless.
In the South, however, only those in the Department of Housing-funded emergency accommodation are regarded as homeless.
The same NIHE report stated that in 2016/17, there were 2,800 people in emergency accommodation. This was the figure for the entire year.
In the South, the Department of Housing only release a monthly figure, which in December last saw just under 10,000 adults and children in hotels, hostels and HUBs.
Unfortunately, the Department does not release a total for the full year, but clearly it is much higher.
The big problem with Leo Varadkar’s claim is not just that he deliberately misrepresented the level of homelessness in the North of Ireland to score a political point, but in doing so, he is being disrespectful to all those experiencing homelessness across the island.
Unfortunately this Fine Gael Government has form when it comes to deliberately manipulating the homeless figures to make it look like the problem is not as bad as it really is.
There are many homeless people who are not included in the Department of Housing’s monthly reports: Women and children in Tusla-funded domestic refuges, men and women in non state-funded hostels in Dublin and those who have secured their right to remain but are trapped in Direct Provision because of the rental crisis. They are all also homeless but not recorded.
More controversially, Eoghan Murphy removed over 1,606 adults and children from the homeless figures in 2018 despite the fact that the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive and individual Local Authorities deemed the families to be homeless.
The official homeless figures have been so corrupted that it is now hard to believe them any more.
When the December homeless report was released in January, we should have all been loudly welcoming what appeared to be a significant reduction in the number of adults and children in emergency accommodation. But the response from the homeless sector was muted.
Why? Firstly because there were actually two sets of figures released within days of each other, hoping nobody would notice.
Without any announcement, the Department of Housing replaced the initial figures with a revised set as the initial report contained significant errors.
More significantly, neither report explained what occurred in December.
During that month, there were 119 new homeless presentations and 98 exits yet the overall drop was 717. These sums just don’t add up.
This has led some organisations working at the coalface of homeless services, such as Inner City Helping Homeless, to question the December report’s veracity.
What people in emergency accommodation need is homes.
They don’t want to listen to politicians arguing over numbers. They rightly want us to focus exclusively on fixing our broken housing system. Unfortunately this is difficult when Government housing and homeless figures are so hotly disputed.
The only way to resolve the long-running concern with Fine Gael’s housing and homeless figures is to hand over responsibility to an independent body such as the Housing Agency and the Central Statistics Office.
That way there can't even be the suspicion of ministerial interference.
Eoin O'Broin is Sinn Féin's Spokesperson on Housing.