Saturday 23 March 2019

Why Housing Minister won't fix homelessness

Last week's health scandal buried bad news about the rising number of homeless, writes Eoin O'Malley

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy. Photo: Rollingnews.ie
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy. Photo: Rollingnews.ie

Eoin O'Malley

Eoghan Murphy might not have been happy to see another health scandal dominate the media in the last week, but he was certainly helped by it. Because he was in the middle of his own little scandal.

The hard-hatted minister gives the impression of a middle-class Stakhanov, a man of action, shirt sleeves permanently rolled up, ready to build those houses himself if he must.

But there are signs that his activity included him actively manipulating the homelessness figures to avoid them reaching 10,000. That's the number of homeless people that ministers had said they did not want to see breached.

The Department of Housing claimed that the homelessness figures, which had seen record rises in January and February this year, were actually lower than reported.

They estimated that 600 people were incorrectly included in the figures, and most of them have been removed in the March figures.

The March total of 9,681 homeless people would have hit the 10,000-mark had it not been for that adjustment. A leaked memo to Louth County Councillors, in which the council claimed that some people had not been counted in its figures at the request of the Department, but that the council still regards them as effectively being homeless.

Measuring stuff isn't as easy as we think. Some measures that had been useful can become meaningless. Ireland's GDP is a good example, where on some estimates iPhone sales account for a quarter of Ireland's record GDP growth last year. We should just ignore those growth figures.

Any measure is a result of human decisions about what to include or not include.

For many when asked what we mean by homeless we might initially think rough sleepers. But what about families living in emergency accommodation because they can't afford rents in the private rental market? Well they're also counted. Or what about a 30-something living with her parents because she can't afford rent. She's not counted.

The dispute centres on who to include. Louth and other councils are using 'Section 10' funding - that is funding paid to councils and charities to help homeless people - to keep tenants who would otherwise have been made homeless in their existing rental accommodation.

They remain in their homes, but they are no longer in their normal tenancy. It's a sensible thing to do, which no one disputes.

What is disputed is how they should be categorised. The minister claims that as they are not in a hotel, B&B, or emergency accommodation they can't be considered homeless. We might say that they are effectively in emergency accommodation because they could be moved at any time.

Louth County Council suggests that given the money paying for this is from the Section 10 budget, they should be treated as homeless.

Who's right depends on how you look at things, but the very fact that the department spent its energy on revising this data shows that it cares about the self-imposed 10,000-person limit.

In a week that also saw that rents have continued to rise across the country, it might have had better things to do. A daft.ie report shows an 11.5pc rise in new rents, and that average new tenancies in Dublin are €1,875.

There are themselves problems with the daft.ie measures, because many people don't advertise on daft.ie and it doesn't include renewed leases. But it suggests that the department's flagship policy of rent pressure zones has failed - as I suspect even the department knew it would.

It would seem that unless Eoghan Murphy gets really good at manipulating figures, the 10,000 figure will be breached.

The problem with these type of figures is that they become hostages to fortune.

In 1978 the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, suggested that any government that saw unemployment rise above 100,000 should resign. Even at the time, economists disputed the State's own unemployment figures.

They claimed it under-reported unemployment by about 30,000. The 100,000 figure was soon breached, but Lynch's government didn't resign. Instead serious efforts were made in the 1980s to take people off the register by putting them into training schemes where they would not be counted as unemployed.

These sorts of targets mean that organisations change behaviour to hit or avoid them. And sometimes that changed behaviour includes massaging the data.

When UK police were given targets to reduce crime, rather than concentrate on actually reducing crime, many of the police forces actively re-designated crimes. What might have been a serious crime was counted as a less serious one. Overnight robberies became burglaries.

This is an example of Goodhart's Law - whenever a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure. The idea that Charles Goodhart, an English economist, struck upon was that because we use measurement to evaluate things, that measurement will be subject to gaming.

We don't see the activities being measured change in the way we want to, we see unwelcome changes in the way the activities are measured.

In the UK, where targets were an obsession for the New Labour government, hospital A&E wait times fell dramatically not because of a genuine fall in the wait times, but because of 'Hello Nurses'.

Wait times were measured by how long it took to see a clinician. The 'Hello Nurse' would see any patient as they entered A&E, check them, and once it was established they weren't about to bleed to death, or their head wasn't falling off, they'd be put in the same, slow queue. But for the purposes of the statistics, they'd been seen by a clinician.

It could be that the almost wholly fictitious Garda breath test statistics were due to informal targets to increase testing.

The Leaving Certificate is by now an almost meaningless measure of education now that schools just teach to the test. The Leaving Cert is what motivates teachers, pupils and parents. It is not an independent test at the end of our school years.

Now the Minister for Housing is given to actively gaming the figures, rather than just fixing the problem, the homeless are likely to become yet another victim of Goodhart's Law.

Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy at the School of Law and Government in DCU

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