Homelessness in Northern Ireland is at ‘historically high levels’ and could become far worse if the Northern Ireland Assembly fails to introduce measures to protect the most vulnerable, a landmark study by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has warned.

The joint study by the two charities warns that a dwindling social housing stock and reforms to welfare benefits, mimicking those already introduced in Britain, present a ‘real danger’ to vulnerable groups and risks ‘pushing more people into increased financial hardship and homelessness’.

Social housing lettings have fallen from more than 10,000 during the 1990s to only around 7,700 by 2011/12, and this trend may yet continue.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has already accepted a number of proposed changes to welfare benefits; including the highly controversial and widely condemned ‘bedroom tax’, already being inflicted upon social housing tenants in other parts of the UK, and the coalition governments flagship Universal Credit project, among other changes.

Official figures show that the number of households without a home to call their own is higher in Northern Ireland (NI) than in other parts of the UK: 13.4 accepted as statutory homeless per 1,000 households in NI, compared to 2.3 in England. However, this may be partly due to differing policies and how homelessness figures are collated in different parts of the UK (administration).

The study found that around 6% of the population in Northern Ireland have experienced homelessness at some point in their life. Young people, social housing tenants and lone-parents are among those at greatest risk of becoming homeless.

Statistics also show that homelessness in Northern Ireland has been at record levels since 2005/6, with 19,400 households presenting themselves as being without a home in 2012/13.

According to the study, the number of people approaching local authorities to present themselves as being homeless has remained fairly steady over recent years but the use of temporary accommodation increased 11% in the two years leading up to 2012/13.

The study also found that there are an estimated 123,000 ‘concealed’ households seeking alternative accommodation. ‘Concealed’ households are described as families or individuals sharing the same accommodation and who are unable to find their own home.

This may be at least partly due to the shortage of available homes in Northern Ireland (a similar situation to that in Britain) and/or rising housing costs.

Leslie Morphy, Chief Executive of Crisis, said:

“Northern Ireland faces a period of enormous flux, with upheavals to the welfare system, rising pressure on social housing and sweeping reviews of policy.”

“This report is an early warning signal. It is critical that the Northern Ireland Assembly monitors homelessness and safeguards services in this time of radical change. There must be a safety net to protect the most vulnerable. Crisis is concerned that for many people struggling on low incomes, these changes could be the tipping point that places them at risk of homelessness.”

Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of JRF, said:

“Households in Northern Ireland have already faced a dramatic fall in their income during the downturn. There is now is a real opportunity to provide low-cost, good quality homes to meet the needs of the poorest. Failure to do this risks pushing more people into increasing financial hardship and homelessness.”

Ricky Rowledge CEO of the Council for the Homeless Northern Ireland, said:

“The Homelessness Monitor will continue to track developments until 2015, providing a unique insight into the impact of the welfare cuts and other economic developments on homelessness.”