Minister for Housing has ‘undermined confidence’ in homelessness stats

Oireachtas committee told rationale for removal of some people from data ‘unclear’

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy had caused confusion with homelessness figures, an Oireachtas committee was told. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy had caused confusion with homelessness figures, an Oireachtas committee was told. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy, has “undermined confidence” in homelessness statistics by ordering the removal earlier this year of over 1,600 people from the data, a leading housing expert has warned.

Addressing the Oireachtas housing committee on Thursday, Professor Eoin O’Sullivan of the school of social policy in Trinity College, said the rationale for the removal of 1,606 people including 981 children - who had been categorised as homeless - from the monthly homelessness data was “unclear”.

The committee was discussing the controversial ‘re-categorisation’ exercise conducted in three phases between March and August requested by Minister Murphy.

In September, the Minister said as these families were not in traditional homeless accommodation – such as hostels, hubs or hotels – but in “own-door” temporary accommodation, they could not be categorised as “homeless”.

Professor O’Sullivan, who in 2013 co-chaired a government committee to categorise and define homelessness, said the “modification” of the figures had “created some confusion and undermined confidence in the data as it is unclear what the criteria is for removing these households”.

“For example, should the legal basis of the residence rather than the physical characteristics of the residence be the criteria for determining whether households are included or excluded in the monthly reports?” he asked.

Eoin Ó Broin, TD (Sinn Féin) described Prof O’Sullivan’s comments as a “very damning indictment”.

Committee chair, Maria Bailey, TD (Fine Gael) said regardless of the heading under which a homeless individual or family was recorded it was important they got the supports they needed.

Recategorisation exercise

Mick Barry, TD, (Solidarity) asked, given that in March when the recategorisation exercise began there had been 9,681 people homeless, had there been discussion in the department about how “politically sensitive” it would be if the figure breached 10,000. He was told there had not.

John Murphy, chair of the interdepartmental group on homelessness, said he did not want to see statistics changed for political purposes.

“We certainly need to have clarity and consensus on what we’re counting and why we’re counting, absolutely, but I don’t want this to become a distraction from the real challenges.”

The committee also heard senior Government officials clash on the definition of homelessness.

Referring to statements from local authorities last month, in which they said variously these families were still homeless or remained on the Pass system (a national data-base on individuals accessing homeless services), Mr Ó Broin, asked Mary Hurley, assistant secretary at the department, whether these families were still homeless.

“The people we are talking about are not in emergency accommodation,” said Ms Hurley.

“That’s not the question Mary. Are they homeless or not?” he asked.

“They are not in, the monthly reports count people in emergency accommodation.”

“I’m asking you, are they homeless or not Mary?”

“They are on a housing list waiting on a house and they are not in emergency.”

“Are they homeless or not? It’s a reasonable question.”

“They are not homeless. They are being accommodated in own-door house.”

He asked if a Galway City Council official was wrong to say the families removed from the monthly homelessness list were still homeless.

“I am saying those individuals are not in emergency accommodation. They are on a housing lists but they are in a secure home, not at risk of homelessness and not in emergency accommodation.”

Eileen Gleeson, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive disagreed saying: “Yes I would consider that they are still homeless because they are accessing homeless services. But they are not counted as in emergency accommodation because they are not in normal form of emergency accommodation.”