Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 March 2021
The Irish government has argued that Irish homelessness levels are normal in comparison with other countries. The then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, publicly stated that “we are actually a country … that has a low level of homelessness” (Irish Independent, 2017). The data being used to draw this conclusion were drawn from a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2017) that stated explicitly that the figures set out could not be compared because they were compiled based on different definitions of homelessness. The Taoiseach also stated: “There always have been a certain number of people in emergency accommodation for one reason or another, particularly people who become homeless suddenly who were not on the housing list.” Moreover, a former chair of the state Housing Agency wrote: ‘Homelessness is a dreadful thing when it happens to someone, but it is a normal thing, it happens’ (The Journal, 2017: 26).
It is, in fact, very difficult to compare homelessness in Ireland with other countries because it is measured quite differently in each country. Some countries measure the number of people without shelter, others only measure those in specialised emergency accommodation, and yet others have a much broader view and include people who are living with friends and families because they have no alternative. Ireland actually has a narrow definition of homelessness – the number of people staying overnight in emergency accommodation paid for by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on any night in the reference week.
What is clear is that for Ireland, the scale of, and rate of increase in, homelessness is currently greater than anything in recent history.
Focus Ireland, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) providing services for people who are homeless, highlights that homeless organisations have never claimed that Ireland has a particularly higher rate of homelessness than other countries, but that ‘homelessness is too high, that it could be much lower and – in recent years – that it is growing appallingly and unnecessarily’. Homelessness, Focus points out, must be tackled, ‘not because it is higher than some international averages, but because it is wrong and avoidable’ (Focus Ireland, 2018: 34).