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New research shows impacts of chronic homelessness on women

Recent research shows the need for a multidisciplinary approach to tackling chronic homelessness in women.          

This Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) report will inform future action plans and service delivery to better address the specific challenges faced by women who experience chronic homelessness in Northern Ireland.  

The research is clear that any future service delivery must include input from mental health services, social services and addiction services. These services are essential in order to address the root causes of chronic homelessness and support women in breaking the cycles of repeat homelessness.  

Chronic homelessness in Northern Ireland 

NIHE’s Homelessness Strategy 2017-2022 defined those who experience chronic homelessness as “a group of individuals with very pronounced and complex support needs who found it difficult to exit from homelessness.”  

As part of the Chronic Homelessness Action Plan in 2020, NIHE created more detailed criteria to identify a person as being chronically homeless. Although not yet in use, the proposed new definition regards a person as chronically homeless if 

  • they have experienced  
    • more than one episode of homelessness in 12 months, or
    • 3 or more placements or exclusions of temporary accommodation in 12 months 
  • And have experienced 2 or more of the following 
    • mental health vulnerabilities 
    • substance addictions 
    • street activity like sleeping rough or street drinking 
    • experience or risk of violence or abuse 
    • leaving prison or youth custody in the last 12 months 
    •  previously “looked after” child 

Extent of chronic homelessness in women 

Using a variety of sources, the report concludes that there are between 80 – 130 chronically homeless women across Northern Ireland. The number of women experiencing repeat homelessness in Northern Ireland could be higher. Some stakeholders believe NIHE’s new definition is too narrow and will exclude some vulnerable homeless women, including 

  • a person who is homeless and has a history of repeat homelessness and assessment whose last application was more than 12 months ago 
  • a person who has been homeless more than once in the last 12 months but who only has one of the additional vulnerabilities
  • people who are not owed a statutory duty by NIHE, including foreign nationals with no recourse to public funds who may have been victims of trafficking or other exploitation

Challenges for chronically homeless women 

This often moving report shows the challenges women experience that can lead to chronic homelessness and the barriers they face in finding and keeping settled housing. 

The most common reasons for homelessness in single women are leaving care and domestic violence. Extern and Welcome Organisation confirmed that many women dealing with chronic homelessness also experience issues like:  

  • poor mental health and addiction 
  • learning difficulties 
  • physical health issues 
  • time spent in custody 
  • separation from children 
  • trauma in childhood 

Stakeholders are clear that chronic homelessness cannot be fully resolved for women unless they can be supported to address the underlying causes. One external stakeholder stated: “You see when you look at some of the women and you see the amount of services that they are passing through and how ineffective that all is for them and how that is affecting them as people. It’s really heart-breaking. They are slipping through the net and are not being included. They are so extremely vulnerable and there is nothing appropriate there. We’re really failing them as a society. It’s not always up to them – it’s about sticking with these women and going above and beyond for them. We’re seeing them at the start of this – but I’ve seen the other end when these women are older. It has a huge impact – and it’s difficult for them to get out of the cycle.” 

Recommendations for tackling chronic homelessness amongst women 

The report identifies a number of improvements or recommendations for dealing with chronic homelessness amongst women

  • Guidance for NIHE staff on identifying and quantifying chronically homeless women. 
  • Training and resources for NIHE Housing Solutions Staff to assist them in fully identifying complex needs at an early stage in the application process 
  • Age and needs specific services. Under 35s and over 35s were identified as having particular and differing needs 
  • Addressing key factors that have contributed to women’s chronic homelessness, particularly taking a therapeutic approach to childhood trauma and violence
  • Ongoing and flexible addiction and mental health services for chronically homeless women
  • Specific temporary accommodation for this group. The need for female-only hostels, including provision for in house therapeutic services, with planned and supported move-on options was seen as important 
  • Better planning for women being released from prison and preventative work with young women coming out of the care system  
  • Building on existing successful operations like Housing First which provide intensive support alongside housing services

The future for chronic homelessness services  

As services begin to normalise in the wake of the pandemic, NIHE is likely to begin implementing the criteria used to identify people who present as chronically homeless, together with the wider rollout of the chronic homelessness action plan. However, the report is clear that tackling and resolving chronic homelessness amongst women will require a multi-disciplinary approach in partnership with health and social services. There are also concerns that the narrow definition of chronic homelessness will mean some vulnerable women fall through the net.  

Fiona Boyle associates carried out the research for the Housing Executive. The full report is available from NIHE's website.  

Tagged In

Research, Homelessness

This article was written on 2 November 2021. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.