Homelessness figures may be skewed by differing definitions and data methods

OECD report says there is no internationally agreed definition of homelessness

A homeless man sleeps outside the Custom House in Dublin: The “relatively large incidence of homelessness” reported by some countries is partly explained by the fact those countries adopt a broad definition of the term. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s comment at the weekend that the State has a “low” level of homelessness compared to other countries looks on the surface to be true. But it is not as simple as that and is little consolation to those facing such a problem.

Latest figures published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in July have data on homelessness for 29 out of 35 countries who responded to a questionnaire on social and affordable housing.

All of those figures are based on an estimated number of homeless people for 2015 or the “latest year available” – so they are already out of date.

Ireland in that report has a figure of 3,625 homeless people, or 0.08 per cent of the population. The Irish total had risen to 8,374 at the end of September.


Countries that had a higher level of homelessness included New Zealand, with 41,207 people homeless, or 0.94 per cent of the population and Australia with 105,237 homeless people, or 0.47 per cent of the population.

Of our EU neighbours, Sweden, France and Germany all had higher levels of homelessness as a percentage of their populations.

The OECD notes that the number of people reported as homeless accounts for less than 1 per cent of the population in all responding countries.

Agreed definition

But like is not necessarily being compared with like. “There is no internationally-agreed definition of homelessness,” the OECD notes.

Some countries have different official definitions of homelessness and there are “a number of flaws in the scope and methods of data collection which might affect measuring the real extent of homelessness”.

The “relatively large incidence of homelessness” reported by Australia, New Zealand and the Czech Republic is partly explained by the fact that those countries adopt a broad definition of the term.

In the Czech Republic, for example, homelessness covers “persons sleeping rough [roofless], people who are not able to procure any dwelling and hence live in accommodation for the homeless, and people living in insecure accommodation and people staying in conditions which do not fulfil the minimum standards of living”.

The country reporting the smallest share of homeless people is Japan (0.004 per cent of the population), but the figures only refer to people sleeping rough.

“Although the homeless are a small share of the population, these figures still represent a significant number of people,” the OECD says.

“Among the higher reported figures, the United States reports 564,708 homeless people, and Canada, France and Australia all report having over 100,000 people in their most recent surveys.”

‘Unintentionally’ homeless

In England, local authorities have a statutory duty to secure suitable accommodation for “unintentionally” homeless households who are in a priority need category. This includes people with dependent children, people who are homeless as a result of emergencies such as floods or fires, pregnant women and people who are vulnerable because of old age, mental illness or disability.

The OECD says Finland, which has a population of 5.5 million – about 800,000 more than the State – is often regarded as an example where measures to tackle homelessness have been implemented successfully.

Governments there have included the fight against homelessness in their programmes since the 1990s and strategies have included the conversion of former institutional shelters into supported housing with permanent tenancies.

A survey by the Housing, Finance and Development Centre of Finland in 2015 and completed by 282 cities and municipalities found the number of homeless people had halved between 1990 and 2014, from 16,000 to about 7,500.