Charity issues warning over 'hidden homelessness' as it calls for urgent action

Simon Community NI's Karen McAlister, Simon Community client Justin, CEO Jim Dennison and Dr Kevin Cunningham from Ireland Thinks
-Credit: (Image: Michael Cooper)


A young man has described what life is like as a "hidden homeless" person in Northern Ireland as a charity issues a stark warning about tens of thousands of people who are effected.

There are currently around 55,000 people in Northern Ireland who are considered to be homeless, including 4,500 children. However, the Simon Community has warned that there could be a further 25,000 people experiencing hidden homelessness due to not engaging with statutory bodies.

This would mean that the true figure for homeless people in NI could stand at 80,000, with the charity believing this figure could grow if urgent action is not taken.

Read more: Man's journey from homelessness in Cork to owning a coffee shop in Belfast

Read more: Hidden Homelessness impacting 8,500 households in Northern Ireland

Justin, 23, experienced a family relationship breakdown and found himself moving to Lisburn to stay with his sister, he knew he could not sleep there due to the lack of space. For about 10 months Justin found himself each night texting friends asking to stay at theirs or partying just to have a sofa to crash on which ultimately led to drug and alcohol issues.

He said: "It‘s not good for the head, Sofa Surfing, it depresses you and makes you think about life, but I tried to stay positive and always remind myself that there are people out there who have it a lot worse."

Upon arrival at Simon Community, Justin recalls the first 24 hours as nerve-wracking having never stayed in a hostel environment before. He reflects on how the the staff have helped and supported him right when he got in the door and continue to support him on his journey and are working towards a support plan to get him back on his feet.

Justin continued: "The stigma around hidden homelessness is a scary thought, not many people know what it is. I used to walk around all night if I had nowhere to stay rather than sleep. I would rely on drugs and drink to get into house parties just to sofa surf and have a place to stay."

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 1,050 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 findings come from an all-island Poll undertaken by Lucid Talks and Ireland Thinks, commissioned by Simon Community and Simon Communities of Ireland.

The research was presented today (June 10) 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.”

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