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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 12 November, 2019
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'I have never seen anything like this': Homelessness in Galway hits crisis point

More and more families are presenting as homeless in Galway, where no social housing has been built since 2009.

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?

THE CONVERSATION ABOUT homelessness in Ireland is often, naturally, centred around Dublin given the sheer scale of the problem in the capital.

However, homelessness is becoming a huge issue in various parts of the country, including Galway.

John Dolan, the team leader of Galway Simon’s resettlement service, has worked in the area of homelessness for years. He took a career break from March 2015 to July 2016.

When he returned to work a few months ago, he says it was a “completely different landscape” to what he was used to early last year, with a lot changing in a relatively short period of time.

“I was shocked by the increase in the number of people seeking access to homeless services, and the change in demographics,” he tells TheJournal.ie.

shutterstock_510527182 Shop Street in Galway Source: Shutterstock/EQRoy

Dolan says in previous years it was common to deal with the same service users on more than one occasion, noting: “Galway is a pretty small place, you would know [people] from the past.

“It’s completely different now, there are new cohorts of people that are accessing homelessness services. People that have never navigated this territory before. There is huge pressure on services here in Galway.

The level of the crisis that exists is quite frightening to be honest. I have worked in homeless services for a very long time and I have never seen anything like this.

“It’s very frustrating as well. We would love to have options to give or solutions to give people. The demographic of people accessing services has really expanded.”

High rents 

Dolan says some of the people seeking help may have rented for many years but been asked to leave their house as the landlord wants to sell it or allow a family member to move in.

John Dolan John Dolan Source: Galway Simon

Due to rents being too high for many people, Dolan says they are “left with very little option but to access homeless services”.

Dolan says that while some aspect of the government’s housing action plan are to be welcomed, he’s “not sure it’s a plan that can really solve the issue as it stands because it’s such a crisis”.

As part of the Rebuilding Ireland plan, the government aims to build 25,000 homes a year by 2020 and provide 47,000 new social housing units, at a cost of over €5 billion.

Part of the plan will see mixed developments of social and private housing in various locations.

Dolan says the plan is over-reliant on the private-rented sector, something that will not work by itself.

“There are a lot of bandages being thrown out there,” he says, adding that not introducing rent controls lacks foresight.

Social housing 

Dolan, like many others on the frontline of homelessness services, believes building more houses has to make up a large part of the response to what is a “perennial” national housing crisis.

“We were able to build a huge amount of social hosing in the 1970s when we didn’t exactly have a lot of state coffers. It’s a question of political will in terms of what we do with the finances that we do have,” he notes, saying the €500 million worth of tax cuts in the Budget might have been better spent on building houses.

P1400978 Source: Matheus Munoz/Galway Simon

No social housing has been built in Galway since 2009.

Helena Martyn of Galway City Council’s housing department told us the first phase of new social housing (14 units) in the city is expected to begin construction on Ballymoneen Road in mid-December and be completed by 2018, at an estimated cost of €3.1 million.

The second phase, a minimum of 55 units, is “expected to be delivered shortly thereafter”, but it’s too early in the planning process for a cost estimation.

Speaking about the plan in the Dáil this month, Housing Minister Simon Coveney said: “As with all social housing proposals, there is an onus on the local authority and on my department to ensure best value for money and a reasonable density within the development to meet respond to social housing need.

Accordingly, contacts between my department and Galway City Council have included the consideration of options in relation to the density and design for this development, but such considerations should not delay advancement of the project.

Coveney added that the two Galway local authorities – city and county – “have a combined target of 1,126 social housing units for the period out to 2017, supported by an allocation of €58.5 million, to be invested in a combination of building, buying and leasing schemes”.

A recent social housing needs assessment found that there are approximately 3,500 households on the city’s housing waiting list.

The council works with a number of bodies to provide accommodation, including Clúid Housing, Túath Housing Association, Co-operative Housing Ireland and Respond.

€25,000 per month

The average monthly spend by the council on private emergency accommodation to date in 2016 is €25,272.90, compared to €16,856.58 per month in 2015.

Martyn notes that this is “significant money”, describing it as a “short-term solution” rather than an “ideal” one.

“It’s not fair to expect a family’s home to be a hotel. That’s not an appropriate setting for families.” she says, adding that living in emergency accommodation is “not a healthy environment to grow up in”.

Martyn says private emergency accommodation is the main option available to Galway City Council. It has made a number of transitional units available to homeless families and these are used when they become available. They are always fully occupied.

Obviously where children are involved we make sure some form of accommodation available. No child should be child left sleeping on the streets. That’s one of my biggest fears.

Martyn notes that, to the city council’s knowledge, this has never happened, but it if did Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, would be notified. She says this is something that could happen if a family didn’t contact the council or organisations such as Simon or COPE.

Martyn says that while homelessness is less prevalent in the nearby counties of Mayo and Roscommon it’s still an issue, with more and more families facing the prospect of losing their homes.

She adds that while private rented accommodation has its role to play in responding to the housing crisis, more houses need to be built nationally.

Lack of accommodation remains a huge issue and new builds are needed.

P1440469 Source: Matheus Munoz/Galway Simon

Martin O’Connor, Assistant CEO of COPE Galway, says the city is an example of somewhere where “when the crash happened, there was no overhang of unfinished properties”. He says there were “small pockets of apartments”, but not many housing estates close to completion.

“Without additional housing it’s simply not going to be possible to manage the crisis,” he notes.

Rough sleeping

Dolan says homelessness in Galway has become much more “visible” in recent times.

“It’s the first time in many people’s memory that visible homelessness is now an everyday topic of conversation. That’s significant. Squatting always happened, but now there is more of a spillover onto the streets – people sleeping in bus shelters, in front of foyers of hotels.”

COPE estimates that about 20 people sleep rough in the city every night.

O’Connor says this figure is likely to be higher as there are also people squatting in semi-derelict or derelict buildings, and sleeping in the stairwells of car parks.

He says there are usually more men sleeping rough than women, and a small number of couples. He notes that some of their relationships formed while on streets, sometimes due in part to “reasons of safety for women”.

On top of this, Dolan says there are the “invisible homeless”, people who are couch-surfing or staying in hostels, B&Bs or hotels.

Services 

Simon provides a number of services in Galway city, including a ‘moving on’ service that aims to help men move into independent living (a service they also provide), community housing, long-term housing and a youth homelessness service.

Here’s a breakdown of the number of people Galway Simon has helped in 2016:

  • Households worked with from January to September: 529 (up from 366 in the whole of 2015)
  • Households helped by the community support team from January to September: 285 (up from 227 in 2015)
  • Number of people housed in their services from January to September: 101 (113 in 2015)
  • Referrals from January to October 2016: 251 (226 in 2015)
  • Number of families worked with from January to October: 112 (up from 32 in 2015 and five in 2014)

Dolan says some of the young people they support previously lived in the care system or may have ended up on the streets due to a family breakdown.

He adds that youth homelessness is a “huge issue”, and something Simon works “very much in tandem” with other agencies to tackle.

In a joint initiative between a number of organisations and the city council, a new complex that will house 18-25 year olds is due to open by the end of November – with the aim of getting young people off the streets before the weather worsens.

“It’s very hard to get your head around, in terms of how these people have been left with so few options,” Dolan notes.

Drug use

Dolan says some of the service users Simon works with have substance dependence and mental health issues, but describes this as “a chicken and egg scenario”, with some issues developing or worsening as a result of homelessness.

“Much of this can come as a result of homelessness or some kind of trauma that existed in childhood and teenage years.” he notes.

shutterstock_350604068-2 Source: Shutterstock/Olena Yakobchuk

O’Connor says COPE has noticed an increase in heroin use in the city in recent years. He says this can lead to a “difficult” dynamic in shared emergency accommodation.

We’re very clear about what’s permissible. We won’t facilitate active drug use in homeless services. We will link people and refer them to addiction services with a view to getting them on a methadone programme.

O’Connor notes that it’s much easier to access services in Dublin and many addicts have to leave the west to access a detox programme.

“One of the big deficits is the near complete absence of detox and rehab services in Galway and the surrounding areas.”

He says COPE is aware of a “small number of cases” where women have engaged in sex work in order to get money for drugs.

There is a waiting list for the local methadone programme which can cause issues because, as O’Connor puts it, there might only be a small “window of opportunity to engage with somebody”.

Evictions

COPE has also seen a rise in the number of families seeking help in the last 18 months in particular. O’Connor says that since then there has been “a very notable increase in the number of families starting to access services, and that level of need has persisted”.

A number of families are currently being put up in a hostel originally designed for single women.

Like Simon, all of COPE’s beds are full and the demand continually outstrips supply.

O’Connor says a lack of affordable housing means some people end up staying emergency accommodation for extended periods of time.

COPE is working with about 60 families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, with four or five new families presenting for help each month.

Photo: Boyd Challenger Martin O'Connor Source: COPE Galway

O’Connor says about 10 new families were presenting monthly earlier this year, but fortunately this number has dropped recently.

COPE is working with a number of families who are in notice-to-quit situations and facing eviction. O’Connor says the organisation has had “some success” in getting families more time to try to strike a deal with their landlord.

He says some landlords are “sympathetic and trying to be amenable”, with some “very regretful in certain instances”, but they might want to sell the property or have more rent coming in so don’t want to continue with the current arrangement.

He notes that a number of landlords are also not renewing contracts to provide housing for local authorities when they come to an end, as they might be able to make more money by selling the house or renting it privately.

O’Connor says nine of the 60 families being helped by COPE are experiencing “hidden homelessness – where they have lost their accommodation and are staying with family of friends – something that is not sustainable in the long-term”.

Roughly half of the families COPE is currently helping are Traveller families who were settled but lost their accommodation, often due to the landlord taking the property back to sell it or for their own family to use.

O’Connor says it can be “particularly challenging for Travellers” to access new privately-rented accommodation as there is an “added prejudice”.

Void properties

O’Connor says the number of void properties available to be refurbished and used as accommodation in Galway city is “pretty much exhausted”.

He notes that many of the few three-bedroom houses available in the city cost over €1,000 a month. He says some parents struggle to make up the difference between the rent and their rent supplement entitlement of €875 if they have two children or €900 for three children – especially when they are competing with the rest of the market.

The HAP was introduced in Galway in February. O’Connor says it’s “early days” for the scheme in Galway, but it has seen “some success”.

cope day Day centre Source: COPE Galway

As well as providing an emergency accommodation response for families experiencing homeless, COPE also runs a number of hostels.

Its Fairgeen facility is a 26-bedroom hostel that provides emergency and short-term accommodation for men. A 12-unit hostel, Osterley Lodge, provides emergency and short-term accommodation for women on their own or with children.

Domestic violence

COPE’s Waterside House is the only 24-hour accessible refuge in the western region. It provides accommodation, information, support and court accompaniment to women and their children experiencing domestic violence. There is an outreach service for women in the city and county who are in abusive relationships and need support and information.

In 2015, almost 600 women and children received support from across our range of domestic violence services including our refuge. However, a further 288 individual women and 405 children who sought safe refuge could not be accommodated due to lack of space. In these instances women were offered referral to refuges elsewhere in the country.

Here’s a breakdown of the domestic violence-related services provided by COPE to date in 2016:

  • Refuge admissions: 68 women (58 individual); 74 children (70 individual)
  • Unable to accommodate: 162 women with 197 children
  • Outreach appointments provided: 545 in Galway city and county
  • Court accompaniments: 59 women accompanied 110 times
  • Play therapy sessions: Provided for 93 children
  • Healthy relationships sessions: Provided in 33 secondary schools

The refuge has capacity to accommodate six women and 15 children at any given time. The building is unfit for purpose – it’s based on single room bedsit-type accommodation and cannot facilitate onsite cooking or an outdoor play area for children.

cope house Osterley Lodge Source: COPE Galway

A new facility is due to be built on Forster Street in the city centre.

It will comprise nine self-contained accommodation units (seven one-beds and two two-beds), each with a kitchen/living room, bedroom/s and bathroom. It will have an overall capacity to accommodate a minimum of nine women and about 20 children. Units will be shared to facilitate further capacity when needed.

The building, which will also have communal and office rooms, was donated by the Sisters of Mercy on a 99-year lease in 2013. The redevelopment is set to cost about €2.5 million, with a €1.16 million grant being provided by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

The plan is to complete the project by winter 2017.

Our #Homeless Ireland 2016 series continues all of this week on TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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