Where did you sleep last night?

 
 

With increasing stresses on homeless services due to rising numbers of homeless people in Ireland, Sean Finnan examines the impact that these strains are having on the provision of adequate services

Last year’s Census was the first time a comprehensive effort to identify homeless persons in Ireland took place in the gathering of Census 2011 information. The numbers showed that there were 3,808 homeless on the night of April 10th 2011 including 2,375 homeless in Dublin. Homeless charities are seeing a rise of up to 40% in the number of people using its advice and information services alone last year. Since the recession hit five years ago, homeless numbers have been steadily rising.

In the previous government’s National Implementation Plan dealing with homelessness, they outlined their vision that “from 2010, long term homelessness and the need for people to sleep rough will be eliminated throughout Ireland. The risk of a person becoming homeless will be minimalised through effective preventative policies and services.” However, the opposite is the case. Rising numbers of homeless people and cuts in both government funding and a lack of support to homeless charities are putting strains on the effective management of homeless services.

“We have experienced increasing demands of nearly 2,700 people accessing our services in 2011, which is a significant increase again over the past two years,” says Aoife Mulhall of Dublin Simon Community. “The official Rough Sleeper Count in Dublin undertaken by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive in April 2011 found 60 people bedded down sleeping rough, compared to 73 in April 2012, an increase of nearly 25%. Dublin Simon Community view this as an absolute minimum number in relation to people sleeping rough in the Dublin Region on any night, as it does not include people in squats, couch surfing or sleeping in parks.

The Dublin Simon Community Rough Sleeper Team operate 365 days of the year, to provide a service to people living on the street with the aim of moving them out of homelessness and into independent living. The Rough Sleeper Team, also known as RCOS (Regional Contact & Outreach Service), provide support to rough sleepers to engage with mainstream services including emergency accommodation, addiction treatment options, social welfare payments, primary healthcare, food and clothing and needle exchange.”

One of the main objectives of the National Implementation Plan was to ensure that those in emergency accommodation would be provided with a support service in order to ensure their effective integration back into society. According to last year’s census figures, 43% of homeless people were in emergency accommodation while 26% were in long-term accommodation. What is not clear by the figures is how long homeless people have been relying on emergency accommodation such as B&Bs and hostels for their accommodation requirements.

At the moment in Ireland, there are 98,318 households on the social housing waiting list. Of these, 65,643 people are unable to reasonably meet the cost of the accommodation they are occupying, while 2,348 people are homeless. There is a reasonably thin line between not being able to afford to pay for one’s home, and ending up homeless. With as many as 128,000 mortgages in arrears, according to latest Central Bank figures, there will be many more households finding the challenge of affording to keep their own home even more troublesome.

A representative from the Dublin Homeless Regional Executive spoke to the University Observer on the issue. “The DHRE are the lead authority for all the other local authorities in the region. So DCC (Dublin City Council) would provide accommodation for homeless people. Each local authority would say, have an obligation to house so many homeless people from their housing waiting list. Homeless people get priority, but there are other ways where people move out of temporary accommodation to long-term options which would be the private rental sector as well as people on the rental accommodation scheme so there are a couple of options there in order to move people out.”

The Dublin Homeless Regional Executive was established in 2009 in an effort to make the provision of homeless services more efficient and cost effective. In the same year, the DHRE launched its Pathway to Home strategy placing more emphasis on providing long-term accommodation for homeless people and to reduce the need for emergency accommodation. “The main aim of the model is to move people from emergency accommodation into more independent living with or without support as required” says the DHRE representative. “So we would have done an audit of all the homeless services in order to work out which buildings were fit for purpose cause there is low-grade accommodation out there. So we want to change that into, you know, that people would have their own units of accommodation rather than being in dormitory style accommodation. That’s been what’s happening over the past three years and obviously the process hasn’t been completed yet, but what happens now is that you’re either in temporary accommodation or else supported temporary accommodation.”

However, there is no doubt that there is a severe shortage of appropriate long-term accommodation. This is despite the fact that there are clusters of residential estates and apartments scattered in Dublin and the rest of the country without any residency. Much of these buildings come under the remit of NAMA, however the argument that such accommodation could easily be used to house those homeless seeking to move out of emergency accommodation may be too simplistic.

The DHRE representative argued: “It’s something we are working on to acquire NAMA properties. DCC are looking at … empty buildings around the city to try and bring them up to a good standard for people that are homeless. Again, there are standards now that must be put in place so obviously you have to invest money in these properties in order to bring them up to a standard in order to put people in them… It’s trying to match the need with the amount of people that you have homeless. If you look around the country, you could have NAMA properties in somewhere like Leitrim but you know, the majority of homeless people are in Dublin so how do you fit that need with the people that you have who are homeless and what exactly they need. It’s very difficult to match that up. If you have single men looking for some place to live you have to acquire single properties for them, you know.”

Recently, councils in London have begun moving homeless families from their social housing homes to districts well outside their community areas as near as Kent and Luton and as far away as Hull and Manchester. The reasons that they give is due to the high rents of living in London and also due to the prospective welfare cuts that will leave many families struggling to afford to live in the city centre.

As Government budgets become tighter, it is the people at the bottom of the social ladder that provide the liquid solutions to narrowing the deficit. Without a home it seems, a symbol of some sort of material wealth, social rights are watered down to a token gesture. Two political wills are in existence here, one that wishes to use the price of London rent to create wealth, the other in the belief that the government should provide local housing to those that cannot afford it.

“The critical demand for Simon services is increasing and it’s vital that we are focused on, and able to provide, suitable ‘move on’ housing options to prevent people from being stacked up in emergency accommodation simply because there is nowhere else for them to go” says Mulhall. “As part of this Housing-led approach we are committed to the sourcing and acquiring of fit-for-purpose properties across Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare. This effort will be enhanced by offering support to those who move on from homelessness and by providing preventative measures ensuring people do not become homeless at all. Accommodation needs must be met for people to live independently and integrate into their communities in a supported environment with trained, experienced staff thereby decreasing the incidences of homelessness.”

Without the support of charities, the short-term survival of many rough sleepers would be in serious jeopardy. “What our services provide are short-term measures,” says Brian Bolger, auditor of UCD St Vincent de Paul. “We are providing short-term services to a long term problem and that’s what homelessness is, it’s a long term problem… UCD SVP have two main homeless services: the soup run which we have on four nights a week and then we also volunteer at the Back Lane Homeless Hostel near Christchurch. All the money that we raise for Homeless Week will go directly towards the soup run which is on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s quite expensive, it costs around €4,000 a year to run… We literally distribute the food by walking around the city centre. People approach us but if they’re visibly homeless we approach them… If it wasn’t for Homeless Week, we wouldn’t be able to have this service.”

Homeless Week runs in UCD from Monday 12th November and is organised by SVP UCD. “One of the big things of Homeless Week is not only to raise awareness… but to move it to a more understanding [approach], trying to get an awareness of the issues and to understand those issues about why some people do become homeless,” says Bolger. “Arguably the main factor… would be addiction… but that factor is always coupled with another factor. There’s always an overlap and it’s usually mental health illness. Dublin Simon found that 67% of homeless people have mental health issues, which is huge.”

Economic woes will continue to be blown up in the media and from the mouths of politicians yet their impact can all be too easily ignored when it affects those on the edge of society. Political pressure can seldom emanate strong enough from those left on the fringes by society. It’s not only up to the lobbying powers of Dublin Simon, Focus Ireland, SVP and the likes to campaign for the greater provision of services for homeless, it’s up to the public that politicians engage in such issues.

As the inevitable trouble with mortgage re-payments will become more widespread over the coming years, those on the brinks of homelessness will continue to put pressure on already strained services. Without greater collective concern, the other that we involuntarily avert our gaze from may have a familiar eye.

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