Last week, we posited that policy-making is not solely about contested data, but that contested stories may be even more important. This is not to undermine the necessity of wide-ranging and methodologically rigorous data, but to claim that when we engage in policy-making – research, advocacy, policy design – we are inescapably telling stories. The narrative is the frame in which we select and shape data, reducing human beings to data points, and omitting their beliefs, emotions and experience.
This week, we will continue to analyse the Quarterly Homeless Progress Reports from the Department of Housing, Local Government & Heritage. This is some of the most valuable data on homelessness available. Last week, we found that by reporting quarterly changes in exits from homelessness compared with twelve months previous, rather than the preceding quarter, the Department was able to report double-digit percentage increases, rather than the more modest increases which existed. In a few quarters, the absolute number of exits decreased between quarters while increases were reported. This data did not suit the intended narrative, so different data were found.
Since we reflected on exits from homelessness, it seems to be a natural progression to consider individuals and families who do not; and who remain in emergency accommodation. The Jesuit tradition is committed to foregrounding our social analysis from the perspective of the most marginalised in society. Few groups are more marginalised than people in emergency accommodation.
The following graphs and interpretations are based solely on families in Dublin, as the Dublin Region Homeless Executive provides additional information for the Quarterly Progress Reports, which is not available for the rest of the country. A core strand of the Department’s overall story of its positive intervention to reduce homelessness is the reduction of the absolute number of families in emergency accommodation in Dublin. From a peak of 1,273 families at the end of Q3 2019, there are now fewer than 500 families in emergency accommodation at the end of 2020. A reduction of this scale in absolute numbers is welcome and demonstrates that the increasing exits (though maybe not on the scale reported) from homelessness have had a tangible impact on many families.
A small section of each Quarterly Progress Report, never reported in the headline figures, provides data on how long families are spending in emergency accommodation in Dublin. It is helpfully disaggregated into six monthly bands ranging from less than six months to more than two years. When the first two time periods are added together, we see that more families are staying longer than twelve months in emergency accommodation, increasing from 40 per cent in Q3 2019 to just under half at the end of 2020. Half of the homeless families who now enter emergency accommodation will remain there for over a year.
However, while the increase in the number of families staying more than twelve months is relatively modest, when we look at those families and children spending more than 24 months; we see something different. The number of families is surprisingly flat, only dipping below 180 families in one of the seven reported quarters. Maybe this can be interpreted positively as the numbers are not increasing. Though something seems to be happening as the absolute number of children spending more than two years in emergency accommodation increased by 165 children (44 per cent).
When we convert the absolute numbers of families and children spending more than 24 months in emergency accommodations into a percentage of the overall group, we see a fuller picture: more people spending longer homeless. The number of families increases by 10 per cent to a quarter of families in emergency accommodation at the end of 2020, having been there for more than two years. Of the deepest concern, three out of every ten children have been in emergency accommodation for more than two years.
Despite previous claims by various Housing Ministers that emergency accommodation was to be short-term and transitional, we see clearly that families and children are spending longer there. How are we to make sense of the relatively flat number of families and the rapidly rising number of children in emergency accommodation more than 24 months? We suggest that the family child ratio may provide a key to what is going on. If we take the entire cohort of families and children in emergency accommodation, the child family ration has increased gradually from 2.14 in Q2 2019 to 2.46 at the end of 2020. For some context, the average number of children per family nationally in the 2016 census was 1.38 and decreasing in the intra-censal years.
If we split the complete cohort into two groups—those spending less than 12 months and those spending more—additional differences in the child family ratio emerge. Families exiting homelessness in less than 12 months have, on average, two children per family unit, ranging from 1.99 to 2.14 children. When we consider the other group—families spending longer than 12 months—we see an increase across all seven quarters from 2.21 children in Q2 2019 to 2.8 children at the end of 2020.
Finally, when we compare the child family ratio of those families spending longer than 24 months as homeless in emergency accommodation with those exiting before a year, the starkest differences emerge in family size. Both cohorts started with a similar number of children (2.07 compared to 2.09) in Q2 2019. In the last published report, the average number of children per family spending longer than 24 months in emergency accommodation was 2.95; an average difference of almost one additional child per family unit. This does not fully represent the likely high variance in family sizes and family composition within emergency accommodation.
What story do these graphs tell?
More families and children are spending longer in emergency accommodation with a quarter of families and a third of children remaining homeless for more than 24 months. A child entering homelessness during Junior Infants would still be there in First Class. The trends in the child family ratio suggests that the families who are not exiting emergency accommodation are changing. The families that remain are larger and will be disproportionately headed by a lone parent. Research by Focus Ireland found that 58% of homeless families are lone parent families, compared with 24% of all families. Larger families, particularly with lone parenthood, are more likely to be in a state of “persistent economic vulnerability” – put simply, in poverty. A DCYA report underlined the importance of family structure in understanding deprivation as households with three or more children and lone parent families experience considerably higher levels of poverty across all metrics.
Many fine words have been said in relation to the Mother and Baby Homes report in recent weeks from our politicians and policymakers. Yet, the institutions of containment endure in Ireland: direct provision, Traveller halting sites, homeless emergency accommodation. On a simple level, these all coalesce around the elusive idea of home, and the lack of a place of safety and security to realise your ambitions. Emergency accommodation or ‘housing hubs’ are just the most recent institution of containment. They have become places we warehouse the poorest families and poorest children in our communities.
The story the government tells about homelessness is not fraudulent. Data supports the narrative. But the same set of data, considered in a different light, generates a different story. And we stop considering homelessness as a technocratic puzzle, but a human tragedy that has lasting and vicious impacts on children, the story is much more compelling.
Ireland’s housing and homelessness crisis is simultaneously a consequence of financialisation, growing wealth inequality, and the failure to provide social housing. But it is also woven into a story older than the foundation of this State; the story of how we systematically marginalise people deemed problematic, establish opaque institutions to house them, and hope that no one asks too many questions about what it is we think we are doing.
To make further sense of the stories around homelessness, our third and final post in this series next week will look at prevention and the tenure which families enter into as they exit homelessness.