APG on Homelessness 15 January 2024
On Monday 15 January, senior representatives of the Housing Executive briefed the All Party Group on Homelessness on their funding position. Grainia Long, the CEO of the Housing Executive, was accompanied by Jennifer Hawthorne (Director of Housing Services) and Catherine McFarland (Director of Finance). Here are some of the key takeaways from the meeting.
The level of need for housing support continues to rise
In her presentation to the group, Grainia Long spelt out the highly challenging situation facing the Housing Executive in responding to homelessness. Ms Long indicated that in September 2023, the social housing waiting list stood at 45,615 applicants. Of those applicants, 27,566 applicants had homelessness status. To put this in context, ten years ago in 2013, there was 12,431 households with homelessness status. This is an increase of 121.8% since that time.
The number of households living in temporary accommodation also continues to rise. In September 2023, 4,469 households were living in temporary accommodation in NI procured by the Housing Executive. In January 2019, 2,065 households were living in such accommodation. Over 415 of those households were living in B&B type accommodation in September. The average length of placement in temporary accommodation was 34.3 weeks and is continuing to lengthen. For the first time, the Housing Executive had to make over 10,000 placements in 2022/3 for households in temporary accommodation (note that the same household can be placed more than once).
Ms Long was clear that Northern Ireland is not unique in facing challenges around need for temporary accommodation but that we are seeing similar issues arising as are being seen in other countries around the world.
The homelessness services budget is under pressure
Coupled with this rise in the number of households in temporary accommodation is a rise in the costs incurred by the Housing Executive in providing such accommodation. In 2017/8, the total cost of temporary accommodation in NI (not including accommodation provided through the Supporting People Programme) was £4.87 million. The group was told that equivalent costs in 2023/4 could be around £30 million depending on how the rest of the year plays out.
The consequences of the pressure on the Housing Executive is that 87% of the homelessness services budget for 2023/4 of a projected £34.9 million is being spent on the provision of temporary accommodation. This money is consequently not being spent on other key priorities and programmes such as the Homelessness Prevention Fund, the introduction of a Lived Experience Programme and the expansion of services such as Complex Lives. Ms Long stressed that this is not because the Housing Executive does not wish to fund these programmes but because the Executive has a statutory duty to provide temporary accommodation to those who are legally assessed to need it.
Unfortunately, there are good reasons to believe that demand for temporary accommodation provision will remain high for some time to come as the provision of additional social housing has been impacted by ongoing budgetary challenges facing the Department of Communities.
In spite of the challenges, the Housing Executive are not fatalistic about the future
Ms Long in her presentation did not shy away from outlining the challenges facing the Housing Executive. However, she also outlined a wide range of different projects and measures which the Housing Executive are engaging in to respond to the demand for temporary accommodation and to seek to prevent households falling in to homelessness.
She referred to measures such as the expansion of shared tenancy schemes for young people; the planned and careful use of HMOs for people with low support needs; the development of a long-term leasing model; the procurement of dispersed intensively managed emergency accommodation in the west of NI; ongoing use of void NIHE properties and ongoing conversations with Housing Associations about use of their void properties for provision of temporary accommodation; the scaling up of Housing First; and ongoing engagement with the Homewards project led by the Royal Foundation.
The Housing Executive representatives were clear that they were not fatalistic about the future and that a lot of good work led by statutory and voluntary partners is ongoing.
The 2024/5 Budget process has started but much uncertainty remains
During questions, Catherine McFarland was asked about the budgetary process for 2024/5. She was clear that the Housing Executive has already engaged in considerable amount of work on the budget for 2024/5 with the Department for Communities. However, she was clear that significant uncertainty remains over the budget process in light of the level of demand for homelessness services. At this point, it is not clear what the budgetary envelope for 2024/5 will look like.
The next meeting of the APG on Homelessness will take place in coming months.