Fears of a winter rise in homelessness

THIS winter could see an increase in the risk of homelessness as more and more families fall into poverty, according to one local charity worker.

Paul Kellagher, children services manager for Action for Children, said the charity is expecting this winter to be difficult for families and the recent issues around the Discretionary Support Fund from the Department for Communities (DfC) could exacerbate problems.

“The Discretionary Support Fund, which is part of our government budget in Northern Ireland, is running out of money halfway through the financial year,” explained Paul.

“One of the things that comes out of the Discretionary Support Fund is a discretionary support payment to top up the difference between housing benefits and people’s rent. This has a very direct impact on families on low income.”

Impartial Reporter: Paul Kellagher, children services manager with Action for Children.Paul Kellagher, children services manager with Action for Children.

Paul also shares the stark figures for households living in temporary accommodation and the already high pressures facing the housing system.

The homelessness bulletin from DfC showed that 3,945 households were in temporary accommodation.

Paul explained: “4,236 children were in temporary accommodation in January 2023 – a rise from 3,913 in July 2022, up 8.3 per cent. In January 2019, 2,433 children were in temporary accommodation, up 74 per cent since then.”

Paul added that charities are also seeing people seeking advice on rent and mortgage arrears.

“What we see then, with families we work with, is parents making choices about not eating themselves so they can feed their children and making decisions between eating and eating as a family. And we know that poverty has a long-term generational impact on children and family.”

But while charities work hard to help these people in need, Paul knows there is a limit to what they can do: “One of four children in Northern Ireland are living in poverty. Is that acceptable in what is a wealthy society? That is not a necessary situation – that is a political choice.”

Sinn Féin MLA Jemma Dolan has also seen constituents contact her office looking for advice and help around housing issues, particularly social housing.

“I know it is a common misconception that there is no housing crisis in Fermanagh, but on a weekly to fortnightly basis, I am dealing with a new housing issue.

“This is not a bad reflection on the Housing Executive because I have built up a strong working relationship with them and I know they are trying their best with the limited stock and budget that they have. Their staff also have some very challenging cases to deal with.

“I have heard stories of families sofa surfing, rising damp causing respiratory issues, houses being unsuitable for some mobility issues but people having nowhere else to go, overcrowding – the list goes on. Elected representatives can make representation on behalf of constituents but the less houses and the smaller the budget that the Housing Executive have, the less that can be done to tackle the problem.”

Waiting list for homes surges by almost 50 per cent

“AT the current time, Northern Ireland is facing a deteriorating situation month by month when it comes to housing and homelessness,” says Mark Bailie, policy and public affairs manager at Homeless Connect.

In the latest figures on housing and homelessness in Northern Ireland from the Department for Communities, Fermanagh and Omagh had the lowest numbers of people presenting as homeless per 1,000 population with 279.

From April to June 2023 there were 2,058 applicants on the social housing waiting list in Fermanagh and Omagh, with 1,424 in housing stress.

And Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area is no exception to the deteriorating situation, according to Mark.

“Over the past five years, the number of households on the social housing waiting list has grown from 1,383 households to 2,033 on December 31, 2022 – an increase of 47 per cent.

“The number of households in housing stress has grown from 721 in 2018 to 1,407 at the end of 2022 – a growth of 95 per cent.

“At the end of 2022, 901 households in Fermanagh and Omagh had homelessness status.

“By any estimation, these are sobering statistics.

“The Fermanagh and Omagh Council area has been impacted by rapidly rising private rents.

“According to Ulster University and Housing Executive research, private rents have on average risen in the area from £536 in the second half of 2021 to £599 in the second half of 2022, an increase of £63 a month (11.7 per cent).

“This equates to £756 a year added on to rents. With so many households struggling with rising costs, it is no surprise that some households are finding themselves in housing stress.”

And when you take into account “hidden homelessness”, the figure could be higher.

Out of the 1,407 households in housing stress, 901 had homelessness status. But at most 218 went into temporary accommodation. And this raises the question of where the rest of these households with homelessness status are staying.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive said it provided 256 placements in temporary accommodation in 2022/23 within the Fermanagh and Omagh area.

A spokesperson said some offers may be refused and they always “seek to meet the best needs of the household in the context of options available on any given day”.