Log In

Reset Password

Why it matters to find the ‘hidden homeless’

First Prev 1 2 Next Last
Hanging alone: the hidden homeless

Behind the statistic of 811 people experiencing homelessness at the end of last year is a story of sadness, struggle and enormous waste of human potential. Even more concerning is that the number — which comes from Home’s tracking of integrated data — understates the scale of the issue because, by definition, it does not capture the “hidden homeless”.

The hidden homeless can be described as people experiencing homelessness, but not visible, either outside or in official data. They may include “sofa surfers” — people staying with family or friends — or those living out of sight in overcrowded, inadequate or unsafe conditions, or in cars or abandoned buildings. They also include families, particularly single mothers with young children, as Sheelagh Cooper, chair of Habitat for Humanity of Bermuda, highlighted in an article in The Royal Gazette last week.

Home’s tally includes data from numerous agencies that come into contact with those experiencing homelessness, such as the Department of Corrections, Court Services, the Transformational Living Centre, the Centre Against Abuse and other helping agencies and charities.

Identifying the hidden homeless matters for accurately mapping homelessness in Bermuda. Only when we understand the scope of the issue can we hope to address it with appropriate policies and services. The more accurate, complete and timely our data, the better our chances of intervening to prevent personal crises turning into catastrophes.

The lack of a clear definition of homelessness, capturing its broad range of living situations, has long been a barrier to building a full picture. For example, the Bermuda Census recorded 82 people experiencing homelessness in 2010 and 138 in 2016. The Department of Statistics developed these estimates based on people found “sleeping rough” and in the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter. In reality, this group forms 11 per cent of the homeless population.

Home bases its definition on the absence of any one of the three domains that constitute a home — physical, social and legal — under the European Typology on Homelessness and Housing Exclusion. From that baseline definition, we then break it down into living situations, described by 13 subcategories under four headings:

Roofless: “living rough”, staying in a night shelter

Houseless: in accommodation for the homeless; in a women’s shelter; in accommodation for immigrants; due to be released from institutions; receiving longer-term support owing to homelessness

Insecure housing: in unstable accommodation; an uncertain housing situation; under the threat of eviction; under the threat of violence

Inadequate housing: in temporary/non-conventional structures; in unfit housing; in extreme overcrowding

In each of the past three years, we discovered people in every one of these situations. However, some of them would not recognise themselves as being homeless. In our tightly knit community, there is a cultural tendency to sofa-surf as a temporary solution to a period of housing difficulty.

Although many will convince themselves their issue is temporary, any housing situation that is not a lasting solution is not sustainable. A stay with a friend could quickly end, for example, if having a guest lodger is in contravention of a lease agreement — which could, in turn, threaten the tenant’s own housing security. Long-term, negative consequences become more likely the longer someone is without their own home.

There will always be some who are too proud to come forward for help and wary of being stigmatised. They may prioritise their privacy over seeking the resources available to them. Others may want help, but struggle to navigate the system, not knowing where to go to access the services they need. This is one of the reasons why Home advocates for a whole-system approach with a single “front door”.

By establishing a clear definition of homelessness, as recommended in the Plan to End Homelessness, we are building a stronger understanding of the issue — for people experiencing it, for service providers who help them, and for social policymakers.

Identifying the hidden homeless is critical for several reasons. Certain interventions, proven to be effective in restoring stability for people experiencing homelessness, cannot benefit people whose urgent need is unknown.

Likewise, we need to monitor another largely hidden group, those at risk of homelessness — defined by Home as people “who do not have sufficient resources or support to prevent them from becoming homeless within the next six months”. Preventive intervention to help people avoid losing their home in the first place should be a high priority.

Reasons why finding the hidden homeless matters include:

• If official homelessness numbers are substantially lower than the reality, then plans to provide new housing units and adequate social services will consistently fail to meet the need — resulting in a continuing crisis-response mode rather than a less costly strategic approach to addressing homelessness

• Early identification allows families and individuals in need to register with housing-support services to help them get the resources they need to prevent their situation worsening

• Helping services can intervene to work with a person experiencing homelessness to ensure they have the tools, skills and access to employment opportunities to help them transition to independent living

• Education and health of children in unidentified homeless families is likely to be jeopardised by poverty, stressful living conditions and a lack of privacy

• Mental or physical health issues are likely to deteriorate with lack of access to healthcare services

• Someone experiencing homelessness without access to resources may turn to crime to survive

The challenges of getting an accurate picture of the scale of homelessness are not unique to Bermuda. The British homeless charity Crisis has estimated that as many as 62 per cent of single people without a home do not show up in official data. Last year, Britain’s Office for National Statistics carried out a review into the issue and concluded: “It is not currently possible to estimate the true scale of hidden homelessness across the UK.”

Home has identified a net increase of 256 people experiencing homelessness over the past two years. This is partly a result of Home and our fellow charities, helping agencies and social services identifying more of the hidden homeless, but also a combination of inflation and the housing crisis causing more of our society’s most vulnerable families to lose their homes.

Our latest data reflects these realities. So far in 2024, Home has identified an additional 32 people experiencing homelessness and another 33 on a pathway to homelessness. Another 80 individuals have been assigned to work with our case managers to help them on the path towards stable, independent living.

There is great urgency for us as a community to push forward with the Plan to End Homelessness. We can choose not to tolerate homelessness any more. In Bermuda, everyone should have a place to call home.

Denise Carey is chief executive and executive director of Home

Denise Carey is chief executive and executive director of Home, a charity with the purpose of ensuring everyone in Bermuda has a safe, stable and sustainable place to live, and that new cases of homelessness are prevented. Contact her at denise@home.bm. To view Home’s 2023 annual report, or to donate, visit the Home website at www.home.bm

You must be Registered or to post comment or to vote.

Published May 21, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated May 20, 2024 at 5:09 pm)

Why it matters to find the ‘hidden homeless’

What you
Need to
1. For a smooth experience with our commenting system we recommend that you use Internet Explorer 10 or higher, Firefox or Chrome Browsers. Additionally please clear both your browser's cache and cookies - How do I clear my cache and cookies?
2. Please respect the use of this community forum and its users.
3. Any poster that insults, threatens or verbally abuses another member, uses defamatory language, or deliberately disrupts discussions will be banned.
4. Users who violate the Terms of Service or any commenting rules will be banned.
5. Please stay on topic. "Trolling" to incite emotional responses and disrupt conversations will be deleted.
6. To understand further what is and isn't allowed and the actions we may take, please read our Terms of Service
7. To report breaches of the Terms of Service use the flag icon