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The vow to end homelessness by Christmas? Not going to happen

Jonathan Corrie died two years ago today and homelessness in Ireland is worse than ever.

download (60) Source: RollingNews.ie

TWO YEARS AGO today a homeless man died in a doorway on Molesworth Street in Dublin, a stone’s throw away from the gates of Leinster House.

His name was Jonathan Corrie and his death just a minute walk from the seat of Ireland’s parliament sparked a national outrage.

The public outcry prompted then-Environment Minister Alan Kelly to convene an emergency summit on homelessness, bringing together all of the key parties in one place to come up with a solution.

Kelly swore that there would be “no need for anyone to have to sleep rough in Dublin” unless they wanted to and promised that the Government would work hard to end homelessness.

download (7) Source: TheJournal.ie

Jonathan Corrie’s case was a complex one. He had been offered accommodation numerous times in Dublin, had a chronic drug problem and had been given and sold homes in the past.

However, his story merely highlights how homelessness is a complex and multi-faceted issue with no easy answers or solutions.

It is also a widespread and growing problem across Ireland; one which incorporates numerous State bodies, non-governmental organisations, local authorities and individual workers.

People from all walks of life become homeless for a variety of reasons.

They could be Julie (33) and her two young sons, who had to move out of their home due to anti-social behaviour and now live in a hotel room in Cork city.

They could be Natasha (20), who spent her life in care and when she was released fell through to cracks of the system to end up sleeping rough on the streets of Cork.

They could be Paul, who became dependent on alcohol and lost a home he was due to move into.

The problem with catch-all attempts at solving the issue is that no two people are completely similar – each person requires a specific type of care to meet their individual needs.

The issue is one that has affected Ireland for decades, and it continues to get worse.

2/12/2014 Jonathan Corrie Homeless People Found Dead The doorway where Jonathan Corrie died in 2014. Source: Leah Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Worsening crisis

Homelessness was first defined in Irish law under the terms of the 1988 Housing Act. Before this there was no legal definition for it.

A series of plans and strategies have been put in place to try to resolve the issue ever since, but in recent years it has only only gotten worse (the Government once committed to ending homelessness by 2010).

A year before Jonathan Corrie’s death, in February 2013, the Government once again committed to ending long-term homelessness, this time by the end of 2016.

That’s one month from today, and will certainly not happen.

In fact, in many respects homelessness is at its worst point in the country’s recent history.

Latest figures show that there are now 4,377 adults living in homeless emergency accommodation across the country.

20161121_housing_adults The increase in adults living in emergency accommodation in Ireland to September of this year. Source: Statista

As well as this, the number of families staying at emergency homeless accommodation (including private B&Bs and hotels) was at 1,178 in September, the highest number on record.

Latest rough sleeper figures show that 142 people are sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin on the night of 22 November.

The problem is at its most acute in Dublin, where the number of homeless families recently surpassed 1,000 for the first time, however numbers are rising across the country.

The use of hotels and B&Bs has never been more common, with tens of millions spent in Dublin on housing families and children in unsuitable, expensive accommodation, usually for months at a time.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney – who has responsibility for addressing the homelessness issue – told RTÉ earlier this year that €46 million per year was being spent to house families in hotels and B&Bs.

10/11/2016. Launch Pillar 3 Minister Simon Coveney says he is committed to solving the issue of homelessness. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Funding for homeless services was increased by 40% in October’s Budget – rising from €70 million this year to €98 million in 2017.

However, according to Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus ireland, the vast majority of this will go to paying hotel bills for homeless families, and not on long-term sustainable solutions or preventative strategies.

“Virtually all the increase in funding is going directly to operators of private emergency accommodation (hotels), so none of it is going to homeless services,” says Allen.

Homeless funding is split into a number of areas incorporating both long-term solutions and emergency measures.

For example, over half of Focus Ireland’s funding comes from the Government to carry out essential services. The same is true of many not-for-profits dealing with the issue.

Focus Spending A breakdown of Focus Ireland income sources in 2015. Source: Focus Ireland Annual Report

Housing families in hotels is an expensive, short-term solution. And as more families present as homeless, more money gets diverted towards paying their hotel bills, at the expense of preventive and longer-term solutions.

“It isn’t that there’s not enough money being spent on homelessness,” says Allen.

It’s that we’re being forced… to spend it all on emergency measures rather than doing something to prevent homelessness, or spending more money on supporting people out of homelessness.

In its latest commitment, the Government has stated that it will end the need for families to stay in hotels and B&Bs by mid-2017, but as we reported previously, there is much doubt around whether this is possible.

homeless hotel Source: TheJournal.ie

On top of this, rents across the country are at an all-time high and social housing waiting lists continue to rise across the country.

So what can be done?

The latest Government initiative to try to end homelessness – the Housing Action Plan – was launched in July.

The 114-page document contains multiple provisions to address the housing crisis in Ireland.

It commits to increasing social housing in Ireland to 47,000 units by 2021, supported by an investment of €5.35 billion.

The strategy aims to do this by building more housing units (including a planned total of 1,500 rapid-build modular housing units by 2018), but also by relying heavily on the private rental market to bring additional homes on-stream.

31/3/2016. Housing Forum Conferences Completed modular homes in Ballymun. Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

This will be achieved through initiatives to entice private landlords to provide their properties for social housing – these include the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) and long-term leasing arrangements.

There is a widely accepted view among charity officials that Minister Simon Coveney is hardworking and committed to trying to solve the housing crisis (the same was said of former minister Alan Kelly, also), however the Government’s latest approach has come under strong criticism for a number of reasons.

The over reliance on the private rental market, instead of committing to targets for building new houses, is one of the key issues people take with the plan.

Experts in the field say that some sort of controlled rents need to be introduced to help tackle the skyrocketing cost of living in urban centres, but so far the Government have been reluctant to do this.

A spokesperson for Threshold, a charity dedicated to preventing people from becoming homeless, told TheJournal.ie that rent certainty was needed to address the growing issue of family homelessness.

“The private rented sector is currently in crisis due to a shortage of supply and with rising rents, more and more households are at risk of homelessness,” the spokesperson said.

Families need to be protected from economic eviction from substantial rent increases.

14/11/2016. Housing Protests IssuesPictured are housing protesters as they block a car outside the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council offices where Minister Simon Coveney was visiting earlier this month.Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Charities have also called for protection for families living in buy-to-let rental properties.

A significant number families are made homeless when the landlord of the home they’re renting is forced to sell and they are evicted as a result.

So far, the Government has not moved the protect the residency of tenants in these situations, even though it could significantly reduce the number of families being made homeless.

Positives

When it comes to solving the issue there have been some (albeit minor) positives in recent months.

In August, the net number of people entering homelessness in Dublin (the number of people entering minus the number of people leaving) was at its lowest point for the year.

This was attributed in part to a rise in the limits of the rent supplement and HAP.

However, the impact on any increase in the rent supplement will likely be diminished month-on-month as rents continue to soar.

Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust operate a Housing First Programme that is having good success in housing and rehabilitating people who have been homeless for years.

download (57) Mike Allen in 2014 at the forum to address homelessness. Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Basing the approach on international research and methods, Housing First involves taking the most entrenched, severe cases of homelessness and giving them their own property with support.

The method does away with the traditional “staircase” model for tackling the issue – whereby a person needs go to therapy, overcome addiction, etc. before they are given a home.

Instead a person is taken from the streets and given their own home straight off, with the only condition being that they maintain the tenancy.

The initial goal of the project was for it to have reached 100 tenancies by the end of 2017. This was ramped up to 300 in the Housing Action Plan.

Head of Communications with the Peter McVerry Trust Francis Doherty told TheJournal.ie that the “acute lack of affordable housing” would make reaching that goal difficult.

“The challenge faced by Focus Ireland and Peter McVerry Trust  is to scale up housing provision and overcome the acute lack of affordable housing  that has hindered the project to date,” said Doherty.

However, he said that so far the programme had housed 67 rough sleepers, and that a new programme had been put in place to help the charities quickly achieve the 300 target.

Launch of the Peter McVer Fr Peter McVerry, founder of the PMV Trust. Source: graphy: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Minister Coveney has been pushing hard for the success of this plan, and has been in contact with local authorities (like Dublin City Council) around making more homes available for the project.

Whether or not they will reach the target remains to be seen, and every month the number of homeless people (especially families) continues to grow.

In response to a query from TheJournal.ie, the Housing Department said it was advancing many of the measures laid out the Action Plan, and that 2,700 exits from homelessness will be achieved by the end of this year.

The winter bed initiative will see an additional 200 beds provided in the Dublin.

With homelessness, the constant tension always remains between long-term, sustainable solutions to help people back into functioning society, and emergency, stop-gap measures to help people in immediate need.

It is this division that makes the problem so intractable, and leads to huge amounts of funding going to merely helping people survive on the margins.

“There’s competing ethical imperatives,” says Mike Allen of Focus.

“We know that opening more emergency beds is not the answer, and we know that the money would be better spent on other measures.

On the other hand you can’t turn to someone who has no bed for the night and decided to sleep on the streets and tell them ‘we decided it would be better to spend the money on something else’.”

“That would be obnoxious and wrong.”

Two years ago, TheJournal.ie published an extensive study of homelessness in Ireland. Since then the issue has gained traction and is of huge national concern.

This week, we are examining homelessness beyond the capital. What is the situation around the whole of Ireland? And what is being done to improve it?

See the whole series at #Homeless Ireland 2016.

Read: ‘I don’t think we can solve the crisis without interfering with private property’

Read: “I never imagined the State would use such underhanded tactics to try and shame a private citizen”

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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