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'Trapped' in emergency accommodation: the downside of homeless hostels

People often become institutionalised in emergency accommodation and find it hard to transition to independent living.

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[Pic: Andrew Bennett via Flickr/Creative Commons]

FOR CERTAIN INDIVIDUALS it’s very difficult to move into an independent living situation because they have a history of living in institutional settings.

Emergency housing is a short-term solution to what is often a long-term problem. Many homeless organisations run hostels, a place for people to get a bed and food for anything from a few nights to a few months.

Sometimes, however, a person ends up staying on much longer than originally intended or hoped.

“There’s one man here since 2002,” Martin O’Connor told at COPE Galway‘s hostel in Fairgreen.

“It’s a bit like moving home to live with your mother, the longer you’re there the less skilled you become. You don’t have to wash for yourself, you don’t have to cook for yourself. In a setting like this somebody can become very institutionalised and they can feel very safe.”

O’Connor said this can lead to people “sabotaging” – either consciously or unconsciously – their chances of “taking the next step and moving into transitional accommodation or the like”.

Francis Doherty of the Peter McVerry Trust agrees that some people stumble when trying to make that transition.

“For certain individuals it’s very difficult to move into an independent living situation because they have a history of living in institutionalised settings … They may have been in prison, where people were there all the time,” Doherty said.

“The big risk is the social isolation factor that could occur.

“We’ve had a case where we found an apartment for an individual on three separate occasions but due to his very long history of being institutionalised in prison [he didn’t move out of emergency accommodation].”

Shutterstock-184903469 Source: Homeless shelter/Shutterstock

The PMV Trust runs 14 hostels in the Dublin region – that can house up to 200 people a night - as well as long-term apartments.

Two thirds of their clients are single males aged between 18 and 35 years. About 85% of these men have substance abuse issues and 50% have mental health problems.

Doherty said that another reason people are staying on longer in short-term accommodation is the recent economic downturn.

“It’s more common now that people are approaching one year to 18 month placements [as opposed to six months]. It’s all down to the lack of affordable accommodation, unaffordable rent.”


Doherty stated that some of the positives of homeless hostels include the friendships that develop between residents.

“People would know one another from emergency accommodation or from the streets, from sleeping rough, so there is a network there.

It’s also important that they drive each other forward. If one person moves on from the accommodation it’s an inspiration for the others. It shows them they can do it too.

Doherty stressed the importance of helping clients develop new skills.

“In anything beyond the one-night hostels we would be encouraging them to engage [with cooking and cleaning] to build up life skillls and living skills.”

He noted the “huge amount of frustration” homeless people often have to deal with when trying to find a permanent home.

The PMV Trust advocates the Housing First approach, which is in line with the National Homelessness Strategy. This process involves finding a home for the individual and then tailoring a support programme to suit any additional needs they have.

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“This can include teaching them to manage a budget or how to cook for themselves,”  Niamh Randall from the Simon Community told us, adding that more intensive plans, such as those involving addiction of mental health-related issues, can also be devised.

Randall said that “a sustained exit from homelessness [is] more likely through a Housing First approach”.

She noted that emergency hostels should be just that – for use in an emergency only.

Shutterstock-104052050 Source: Homeless/Shutterstock

“The idea is that they should only be used in an emergengy so that people are not sleeping rough, so they’re safe and warm and so they can link in with other services.

People stuck in emergency accommodation are tying it up on someone else … The challenge is that what was introduced as an emergency measure has become long-term for some people. Some people are effectively trapped within [hostels] for long periods of time.

Randall said that this can lead to many other problems, such as ill health.

“The longer people are homeless, the greater the negative impact on their overall health.

Homelessness can make you sick, the longer people are stuck in homelessness the greater impact that can have. Sometimes they are sick because of addiction and sometimes the sickness is brought on by being homeless.

In a 2011 survey conducted by the Simon Community, 65% of the 603 homeless people questioned had at least one physical health problem, 47% had at least one mental health issue, 50% were dependent on alcohol, 31% were drug users, 19% had self-harmed and 17% had attempted suicide in the last six months.

Randall agreed that the human interaction aspect of hostels, drop-in centres and soup runs is of huge importance.

When you talk to homeless people one thing that always comes through is the unbelievable loneliness they often feel. When you’re homeless you effectively become invisible because people don’t look at you.

“People ask us what they can do, sometimes even just saying hello can help break down that isolation.”

Additional reporting: Cliodhna Russell

Catch up with  the rest of our Homeless Ireland series here.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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