How does climate change impact our homeless population?

22 July 2021

Homelessness in Ireland is not a new topic. We have been tackling it for years and will continue to do so. Homelessness is one of the immense social problems Ireland is facing currently and it is one of the most extreme forms of social exclusion.  

The most common definition of homelessness refers to individuals who are staying in emergency accommodations as well as those who are sleeping rough, sleeping outdoors or in areas that are not anticipated for human habitation. These individuals are known as the ‘absolute homeless’.

According to a 2020 Social Justice Ireland report, in July 2016 when Rebuilding Ireland was first introduced, 6, 525 people accessed emergency accommodations. By January 2020, the number of people who had accessed emergency accommodations increased by 60 per cent up to 10, 271 people. In that same time period, family homelessness increased by 42.5 per cent. Although there are Government action plans to help homelessness in Ireland, the numbers of people living homelessness continues to increase.

Then we have the additional pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic on the construction sector as the building of social housing that people so desperately need has slowed.

Homeless people are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, and they suffer from higher rates of chronic disease than the general population.

Climate change can have an impact on everyone’s lives, but it has a severely impact on those of vulnerable groups in particular those who are homeless. Climate change threatens the cleanliness of our air causing air pollution, the severe weather changes and the pollution of our water. Homeless people are exposed to breathing in polluted air 24 hours a day, heightening their risk of developing respiratory conditions.

In Ireland when weather drops below freezing in the wintertime or when torrential rainfall comes down, those of us that are housed can take to the comfort of our own homes.

Whereas when homeless people are exposed to these weather conditions, they don’t have the ability of keeping warm and dry in a nice cozy home. The mortality and morbidity rates of homeless people are also affected by heat and cold exposure which is exacerbated by climate change.  

For homeless individuals’ food and clean water is not always accessible and as a result homeless people suffer from poor nutrition.

Climate change can also contribute to the reasoning why individuals can become homeless. Carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels such as coal, natural gases and oil is warming our planet and leading to climate change. Climate change is expected to result in an increased of the frequency and the intensity of natural disasters.

Events like floods, wildfires, hurricanes and heatwaves are becoming more frequent and even more extreme. Most recently we’ve seen wildfires and floods tear through residential areas and leave the places where people once lived in complete ruin.

All these climate disasters that happens throughout the world are wiping out and destroying millions of homes, increasing the rates of homelessness and these disasters will cause an increase of mortality rates.

We need to do everything in our capacity to halt further warming and protect our planet, our homes, and our communities.

Niamh Walsh is a 21 year old student who has recently completed her final year of her degree in Applied Social Science in Maynooth University and will be graduating this year.

This article was written as part of an assignment for a course module, Environment , Sustainability and Social Justice.