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March 1, 2019

Ben Fowler

Towards  a  harmonised  definition  of  homelessness statistics

Yesterday the Government Statistical Service (GSS) Harmonisation Team released a report exploring the feasibility of harmonising definitions of homelessness for UK official statistics. The Centre for Homelessness Impact’s remit covers all four UK nations, so we are naturally interested in - and keen to assist with - efforts to improve cooperation between the countries and develop better shared evidence and data infrastructure.

The report suggests that full harmonisation is not possible in the short term. With four legislative frameworks and data collection systems, some of which have recently changed, its perhaps unsurprising that they reached this conclusion. We do, however, believe that harmonisation is a vital long term goal.

While the report focused on the differences between the countries, it is worth noting that there are also lots of similarities. With a few relatively minor changes it should be possible to make significant steps towards harmonisation. For example, the report found that all nations except Northern Ireland capture the number of people in temporary accommodation.

One of the report’s recommendations is the creation of a conceptual framework which will allow users to visualise the different definitions of homelessness used for official statistics and how these fit together. We welcome the commitment to the end user in regards to communicating the information in a more user-friendly and visual way. We look forward to reviewing this work as early as this summer. Our hope is that, in addition to providing a better way of understanding the current differences, the conceptual framework will clearly map out the steps required to achieve harmonisation.

Another aspect of standardising homelessness statistics, beyond the scope of the report but worth considering as part of the big questions recommendations, is to consider how to compare UK official figures with homelessness data from other parts of the world.

Currently there is no internationally agreed definition of homelessness - and there are no standard instruments for measuring homelessness, not even among OECD countries. Global data harmonisation would strengthen the global ‘what works’ evidence infrastructure, and inform efforts to prevent or relieve homelessness more effectively.

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