Homelessness Policy in NI: Is Devolution Making a Difference?

Paddy Gray, Grainia Long

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


In the previous decade the social, political and economic landscape in Northern Ireland (NI) has changed considerably. The arrival of devolution to NI in 1998 marked a turning point in the governance of the region. The first Programme for Government, endorsed by the Assembly in 2001, prioritised growing as a community, working for healthier people, investing in education and skills, and securing a competitive economy (Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), 2001). Targets for housing (expressed in Public Service Agreements) included commitments to maintain and improve existing stock, reduce fuel poverty, and enhance the new build programme by 1,200 units to alleviate the waiting list. Despite a number of achievements, expectations that the policy landscape would greatly reflect the presence of a local administration, like that in Scotland and Wales, were not realised due to a five year hiatus following the suspension of devolution in 2001. By the time of its restoration in 2007, the economy and society in NI was very different, and the implications for housing and housing need have been profoundThe vast majority of people in NI are housed adequately including the more vulnerable who have a reliance on the provision of affordable housing. But there remain important areas of need, albeit limited to a minority of the population. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) (the strategic housing authority) assumed responsibility for homelessness in 1988 and there has been recent concern at the growing waiting list for social housing in the NI, and more significantly, the growing number of households in urgent need seeking accommodation. According to the Simon Community (NI) homelessness is now at the highest level ever seen in NI, almost equivalent to the primary school population of Belfast (Simon Community 2003). The organisation gives the main reason for homelessness as lack of suitable available accommodation.Much of the debate around homelessness in NI in the past has focussed around estimating the numbers of homeless people and figures had differed considerably depending on who was making the estimates. On the one hand pressure groups such as Shelter, Council for the Homeless and the Simon Community would attempt to maximize numbers, whilst the government attempted to minimise the scale of homelessness (engaging in ‘neutralising techniques’, see Marcuse (1988)). This dichotomy between the public and voluntary sectors is not new and certainly not unique to NI. It should be recognised, however, that much agreement also exists between both sectors particularly in relation to who homeless people are, and the range of causes of homelessness. O’Connor (2008) describes the main attribute of the statutory side’s perspective as providing a clear definition of homelessness in order to be able to draw boundaries and make distinctions around who is entitled to what share of state provided goods and services. In contrast to the voluntary perspective, this is an exclusive definition of homelessness. Indeed it requires tighter classification in order to protect scarce public resources from potential abuse and to prevent applicants presenting themselves as homeless simply in order to increase their priority on the housing waiting list. The voluntary position on the other hand can be more flexible as charitable bodies are often the last refuge of those falling through other social safety nets and as such will respond to presenting need on a humanitarian basis first, rather than question someone’s official status or eligibility. Whilst there may be disagreement over who and what constitutes ‘homelessness’, there has been a growing awareness in NI that a major homelessness problem, exists and Government Departments have been working alongside voluntary organisations to promote the social inclusion of homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless.This chapter begins by looking at the legislative framework on NI and how it compares with other parts of the UK. The extent of homelessness and housing need in NI is discussed, along with the affordability crisis and the need for an increased supply of social housing in the Province. The specific issues associated with the highly segregated nature of social housing in NI are addressed, and the chapter ends with an analysis and critique of recent attempts to find policy solutions which will reduce homelessness, presenting future challenges for policy makers.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHomelessness in the UK: Problems and Solutions.
EditorsSuzanne Fitzpatrick, Deborah Quilgars, Nicholas Pearce
PublisherChartered Institute of Housing
ISBN (Print)978-1-905018-67-3
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2009


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