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'People are dying': One year after Apollo House and homelessness is worse than ever

The Home Sweet Home campaign received widespread attention when it took over Apollo House on Hawkins Street for homeless people.

The entrance gate to Apollo House in Dublin.
The entrance gate to Apollo House in Dublin.
Image: SAM BOAL/RollingNews.ie

IT IS A year today since a group of activists, trade union officials, artist and musicians took over a disused Nama building and converted it into housing for homeless people.

The Home Sweet Home campaign received widespread attention when it took over Apollo House on Hawkins Street on the night of December 15, 2016.

Over the course of nearly four weeks – through the Christmas period and into January – activists said that over 205 homeless people passed through its doors.

The occupation garnered huge public support, with over 4,000 people applying to volunteer and a GoFundMe account raising over €160,000.

A large, open-air concert was held outside the building with big celebrity names like Glen Hansard, Kodaline and Hozier playing to a crowd of hundreds.

As well as this, hundreds marched to the Department of Finance, and a Christmas Day concert was held in the building.

Despite some notable issues (including one of the founding members being barred from Apollo House) the campaign stayed unified throughout the occupation.

In the end, a High Court order for the activists and homeless people to vacate the building by early January was granted to the receivers of Apollo House.

Initially, Home Sweet Home campaigners said they would not be leaving Apollo House without certain guarantees from the Irish government.

This led to late-night talks early in January between Home Sweet Home activists and then-Housing Minister Simon Coveney and officials from the Housing Department.

It was following these talks – and a last-minute tense stand off and protest at Apollo House – that the occupiers eventually quit the building on 12 January.

90438256_90438256 Home Sweet Home activists celebrating following the end of the occupation. Source: SAM BOAL/RollingNews.ie

Homelessness

At the time of the Apollo House occupation, homelessness was at one of its worst points in Ireland’s recent history.

Housing Department figures for December 2016 show that there were 4,643 homeless adults and 2,505 children staying in emergency accommodation.

The situation was by far at its worst in Dublin. A total of 778 families with 1,590 children were living in hotels in the Dublin region in December 2016.

One year on from Apollo House, and the homelessness situation in Ireland has only gotten worse.

Latest figures for October of this year show that there were 5,298 homeless adults and 3,194 children staying in emergency accommodation.

This is a 14% rise in the number of homeless families and a 27% increase in the number of homeless children.

Since the occupation, a number of government interventions have taken place,  including the opening of a number of “family hubs” – group style family accommodation aimed at getting families out of commerical hotels.

Homelessness funding has also increased – with €116 million committed in Budget 2018 towards addressing the issue.

Despite this, the problems continues to worsen.

What was promised 

Unite trade union official Brendan Ogle was one of the key member of the Home Sweet Home campaign, and one of the first people into  Apollo House last year.

One year on, he feels that the campaign achieved a lot at the time, but that for a number of reasons it failed to have a long-term impact on government housing and homelessness policy.

“I feel sad. And I’ve felt sad most of the year,” Ogle told TheJournal.ie.

“We had three objectives in Apollo House: The first one was the draw attention to what was then an emergency and is now a bigger emergency – job done.

“The second one was to provide somewhere safe and warm for people over last Christmas and New Year… so that was done.

“But the third objective was to some way impact upon the government’s long-term strategy in dealing with this emergency, and it was a complete and utter failure in that regard.

It’s fair to say that emergency is worse, people are dying, Apollo House is still empty for some bizarre reasons it stands there with people sleeping underneath it again.

(Apollo House is currently scheduled for demolition)

Ogle said that the government did not live up to its end of the bargain over the commitments that were secured in early January.

As the High Court deadline neared for the occupiers to quit Apollo House, crucial talks were held between Home Sweet Home activists and Simon Coveney and officials from the Housing Department, with a view to having the occupiers leave the building.

Following these, both sides immediately contradicted each other on what had been agreed upon.

Issues around what was guaranteed by government and who was responsible for securing what measure were disputed from the off.

One commitment that both sides agreed on, however, was a reiteration of Coveney’s pledge to end the use of hotels for housing homeless families by July of this year.

This was a key part of the former housing minister’s homelessness policy, and the commitment was contained in Rebuilding Ireland – the government’s Housing Action Plan, published last July.

In late June, Coveney stepped aside as Housing Minister. One of incoming Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy’s first acts was to announce that the July target would not be met.

Despite questions from TheJournal.ie at the time, the minister did not set a new date for ending the use of hotels for housing homeless families.

According to the Housing Department, there were still 690 homeless families in hotels in Ireland in October of this year.

For Ogle, this marks a clear reneging on a key commitment by government. He is also critical of Coveney for leaving the Housing minister role when Leo Varadkar became leader of Fine Gael in June.

“The promises that were made – the guarantees – were not delivered,” he said.

Home Sweet Home

From the perspective of Home Sweet Home, at the time of the occupation activists said repeatedly that it was to be a permanent intervention in addressing homelessness in Ireland.

However, in the months following Apollo House, HSH failed to keep up the momentum and the campaign eventually split back up into its disparate groups.

In May, concerns were raised over what was happening with the €190,000 that was donated to the campaign. In July, it was announced that the money would be split up between different activist groups tackling homelessness.

One of the key groups involved with the occupation was the Irish Housing Network – which is itself a loose connection of different community housing organisations.

These groups are still active in Dublin, holding regular meetings and tenants’ right workshops, as well as working on anti-eviction demonstrations.

From Ogle’s perspective, he said he and others had been negatively impacted by what he termed as an “onslaught” from the media near to the end of Apollo House, as well as the “closing ranks” of government and Dublin City Council around the issue.

“We had hope it would last and it would continue, but it hasn’t,” he said.

“And certainly from my point of view those who took part in any similar action – because I believe that there is a role in direct action.

But I wouldn’t be doing it again myself.

In response to a query from TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson from the Housing Department said it had provided funding to have an extra 200 emergency beds available for the end of the year.

The spokesperson also said that the number of families staying in commercial hotels in Dublin has decreased by 22% since March and that there were now about 300 families accommodated in family hubs in the Dublin region, with over 100 additional units of family accommodation to be delivered in Dublin before the end of the year.

Finally, the spokesperson pointed towards increased funding and efforts under the housing first programme, as well as plans to increase social housing delivery next year.

Read: Mannix Flynn: ‘Apollo House completely failed’

Read: ‘There are definitely stories that would fit onto the big screen’: Jim Sheridan reflects on Apollo House

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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