A charity for the homeless in Northern Ireland has hit out after it emerged that 217 people died while waiting to be housed here in the past year.
ver this period, a total of 14,728 housing applicants were removed from the waiting list for a range of reasons, with around half of them being rehoused.
The most common reason for being removed from the waiting list was a failure on behalf of the applicant to respond to a renewal reminder. This accounted for 4,608 applicants, followed by 1,320 who were removed at their own request.
Some 143 were taken off the list as they were rehoused in the private sector.
Currently there are around 43,000 on the housing waiting list in Northern Ireland, with demand far outweighing supply.
Jim Dennison, chief executive of Simon Community NI, said it is “awful” to think that 217 vulnerable individuals were not provided with the “dignity of having a place to call home in their final days”.
“That averages over four people a week. Furthermore, itâ€™s alarming that in 2019 the Bureau of Investigative Journalism announced that 205 homeless people here died over an 18-month period, yet what weâ€™re now seeing is more people dying in a shorter timescale,” he said.
“Without knowing the background to each personâ€™s case, it is difficult to comment fully on the subject. However, what the figures suggest to me is that, like the majority of homelessness in Northern Ireland, the issue remains very much hidden. If this was 217 road deaths in a single year, there would be much more of an outcry and action on the problem. But, unfortunately, many of these deaths are going unnoticed.
“We believe no one should die homeless and we continue to push for an increase in housing supply, stronger inter-departmental workings and greater funding for essential homelessness services. Without commitment to these, we will only see more people dying while waiting to be allocated a place to call their home.â€
Ulster Unionist communities spokesperson Andy Allen said: “Northern Ireland is in the midst of the housing crisis â€“ we have many individuals and families stuck in temporary accommodation, properties that are not suitable or many who are having to rely on the goodwill of family and friends for a roof over their head.
â€œWe need to recalibrate how we deliver social and affordable housing. This requires commitment across the Executive to tackle the spiralling housing crisis we face.
â€œI remain concerned at the number of applicants being taken off our housing waiting lists each year due to no reply to a renewal reminder which is skewing the true scale of housing need. We need to work to significantly increase the number of homes delivered each year.â€
SDLP west Belfast representative Paul Doherty added that, while many of those who died on the waiting list may have been older in age, it is â€œdoubly shamefulâ€ that we are unable to provide housing for people in their later years.
â€œOlder people are much less likely to use online services and struggle to navigate the social housing application process. We need to ensure that proper support is in place to help people apply for housing and properly explain the situation they are in,â€ he said.
“I was also concerned to see thousands of people being removed from the waiting list because they didnâ€™t reply to a renewal reminder. Letters and other contact about issues like this can be easily missed and could result in a situation where people are removed from the list without realising.
â€œI regularly see the pressure people of all ages are under through my work with Foodstock. People are struggling to put food on the table and pay their bills because of the cost of living crisis. Wages, welfare payments and pensions are simply not going as far as they did a few months ago and people are being forced into a desperate situation, relying on food banks and other support groups to get by.â€
Mr Doherty said more new homes need built urgently, adding: â€œPeople should not be left in a position to die while still waiting and I can only imagine what itâ€™s like spending the last years of your life trying to secure a home.â€
The NIHE said: â€œTo ensure that those on the waiting list are rehoused as soon as possible, we adopt a two-fold approach. Firstly, we strive to promptly allocate existing social accommodation to those on the waiting list; Secondly, we seek to meet housing need through the construction of new social dwellings via the new build programme.
â€œDuring the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw a decrease in the number of allocations of social tenancies from approximately 7000 in 2019. However, the allocation figure of around 6200 in 2021 is returning towards pre-pandemic levels.
â€œThe Housing Executive continues to work closely with the Department for Communities (DfC) and its housing association partners to identify, programme and ensure delivery of new social housing units across Northern Ireland as part of the Social Housing Development Programme.
â€œIn the 2020/21 programme year the number of new social housing starts exceeded targets by around 30%, delivering 2,403 social homes against a target of 1,850 units. The target for new social housing starts for the 2021/22 year is 1,900 units.â€