Hidden Homelessness Crisis facing NI

Pictured (left-right) are Simon Community NI Head of Research and Development Karen McAlister, CEO Jim Dennison and Ireland Thinks Managing Director Dr Kevin Cunningham.

Leading homelessness charity, Simon Community has revealed that Hidden Homelessness is a growing problem across NI with many people unable to access adequate support or a place to call home.

The official homeless statistics for Northern Ireland currently stand at 55,500 people, including 4,500 children, but Simon Community warns that the true scale of the homelessness crisis is significantly under-reported. They estimate that there is a further 25,000 people who are currently experiencing “hidden” homelessness – people who are not engaging with the statutory bodies and are therefore invisible to the official system.

This means that the estimated number of people experiencing all forms of homelessness in Northern Ireland is actually closer to 80,000, and Simon Community warn this figure will grow unless drastic action is taken.  

These stark findings come from an all-island Poll undertaken by Lucid Talks and Ireland Thinks, commissioned by Simon Community and Simon Communities of Ireland, giving the charity critical insight into the true size and scale of the problem we are facing.

Individuals who do not show up in official statistics and are not accessing public support are known as ‘hidden homeless’ and are forced to live in a variety of situations ranging from staying with family or friends, sofa surfing or even sleeping in cars.

The research, carried out with 1050 people in Northern Ireland, also revealed that the most common reason (37%) for experiencing hidden homelessness was the loss of home from the private rental market. This is likely due to the surging costs in the private rental market, making rent unaffordable for those on lower incomes.

The research also showed that the overwhelming majority of people who are hidden homeless – 77% – are experiencing it for a period of six months or longer, and that younger people (18-34-year-olds) are those most at risk, with many unable to access the property market due to the current cost-of-living crisis creating increased financial strain.

The research was presented today (10th June) to key stakeholders in housing policy and homelessness services at an event at Clifton House, Belfast.

Jim Dennison, Chief Executive of Simon Community NI, said:

“This research comes at a critical time as the homelessness crisis worsens across Northern Ireland. The scale of the problem is shocking – 80,000 people, which is the equivalent to one parliamentary constituency or a city roughly the size of Derry/ Londonderry.

“It is simply inexcusable that people cannot access a permanent home. There are social and economic factors driving hidden homelessness and the long-term impact of this is devastating both mentally and physically.”

Simon Community currently supports over 500 people each day across Northern Ireland. It works to end homelessness and provides a range of innovative services that prevent and tackle the issue as well as providing specialist support services for clients.

Dennison continued; “For too long, the government have been focusing on emergency, temporary solutions, which are not the answer. We are currently at capacity in Simon Community’s temporary accommodation units, and we already cannot keep up with the demand or provide the long-term accommodation options that people need. This research shows that the need is even greater than we feared – with many thousands of additional people not accessing the support that should be available to them.

“The lack of accessible social housing and ridiculously expensive rents in the private rental sector are significant drivers of homelessness. We must focus on prevention, and we are asking that housing supply is a priority in the upcoming Programme for Government. The impact of this crisis across all areas of government will only deepen without a strong housing supply strategy being implemented urgently.

“It is important that policy makers understand the true scale, urgency and nature of homelessness in Northern Ireland, so we are able to develop the long-term sustainable solutions to tackle it.”

Professor Ann Marie Gray, Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University, who also spoke to guests at the event added; “The findings presented today are unsurprising especially if we consider the wider economic challenges that people have been facing recently. Following the pandemic, households have been struggling with the cost of living as well as huge hikes in interest rates and inflation. This has undoubtedly impacted affordability for housing forcing some to be faced with the reality of becoming homeless. It is time for radical and structural change to tackle this growing problem.”

Key Northern Ireland Homelessness Research findings:

  • Less than one in twenty (3.3%) households reported currently being forced to live in a variety of situations, ranging from staying with family and friends to sleeping in their car.
  • Less than 5% of those surveyed in Northern Ireland reported themselves, or a close family member, as having slept in a car or work van. This was followed by staying in tents/caravans (3%), in a workplace (2%), overnight in a bus station (2%) and squatting (1%).
  • Loss of home from the private rental market was the most cited reason for experiencing hidden homelessness. 37% have experienced this in Northern Ireland and more than one in five (22%) said it was down to the landlord wanting the property back.
  • Other reasons included loss or reduction in income, loss of employment, loss of an owned or mortgaged home, and exiting an institution (care, hospital, or prison).