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'There will be people lying in doorways and parks this Christmas': Homelessness in regional towns

There has been a 100% increase in the number of people registered as homeless in Co Louth in the last two years.

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?

HOMELESSNESS IS ON the rise in Irish cities, but regional towns are also seeing an increase in people at risk of losing their homes.

There has been a 100% increase in the number of people registered as homeless in Co Louth in the last two years. In Sligo, meanwhile, more and more families are seeking help in a bid to avoid ending up without a roof over their heads.

Mary Jameson, project leader in at Focus Ireland’s Sligo office, says her team are “helping more families in last couple of years”, particularly in relation to repossessions.

“We would never have dealt with that until three or four years ago,” she tells TheJournal.ie.

mary sligo Mary Jameson Source: Focus Ireland

Jameson says there is no sign of rent stabilising in Sligo, like many other places in Ireland.

Focus owns 14 apartments in the town and manages a further 23 on behalf of Sligo County Council.

A lot of people want to stay close to town so they are close to services, especially people who need access to mental health and addiction-related services.

“Some people might be managing their mental health issues quite well, but still need some level of support. Others don’t have these issues, but can’t find affordable housing.”

Jameson says, in her experience, landlords are reluctant to engage with the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP).

The scheme, which will replace the rent supplement payment for those with a long-term housing need, sees local authorities making payments, subject to rent limits, on behalf of the HAP recipient directly to the landlord in respect of rent.

The HAP recipient will then pay a rent contribution to the local authority. The rent contribution is set by the local authority and based on income and ability to pay.

Jameson says the centre also get calls from people in other counties such as Mayo, saying there is a lack of services available to people experiencing homelessness or at risk of this, noting: “We can only offer advice over the phone.”

Housing Minister Simon Coveney told the Dáil that, as of September, 134 households had been “supported by HAP in the administrative area of Sligo County Council, with an average of four tenancies being set up per week in 2016″.

Local Fine Gael TD Tony McLoughlin told him there are long delays in processing HAP applications in Sligo County Council due to staff shortages.

9/11/2016. Ready For Winter Campaigns Housing Minister Simon Coveney Source: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

In reply, Coveney said: “Each Chief Executive of a local authority is responsible for staffing and organisation arrangements necessary for carrying out the functions of the local authorities for which he or she is responsible.

“My department works closely with all local authorities and all have been invited to submit staffing sanction requests to facilitate the delivery of housing services. Each staffing sanction request is examined, on a case-by-case basis having due regard to the continued delivery of key services in the context of staffing and budgetary constraints.”

Social housing 

Some 20 social housing units have been approved in Strandhill and a further 28 units on Knappagh Road.Construction is due to start in early 2017.

Local councillor Seamus Kilgannon welcomed the news, but noted it will be the first social housing built in the county since 2009. He said 22 houses on On Fr Flanagan Terrace were approved in 2011 but have been “waiting for the green light for a long time”.

The delay is frightening at times.

He says the lack of houses being built in Sligo and other places was the result of “a difficult time”, noting: “There just wasn’t enough money.”

He said the Rebuilding Ireland initiative would indicate a “willingness on the part of the government to support local authorities” to start building again given the level of the crisis.

It has become a crisis in nearly every large town now. Thankfully it seems as though the government is taking it more seriously now, it will take years to address.

Under the 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.

Kilgannon is the chair of Finisklin Housing Association, a housing department and HSE-backed scheme that helps homeless people who may have additional needs such as a substance problem, a disability or an illness.

Cllr.-Seamus-Kilgannon Séamus Kilgannon Source: Fianna Fáil

The Fianna Fáil councillor says the association supports “people down on their luck … to get them into the habit of living independent living so they are able to move on and live independently”.

Kilgannon says some people are also struggling to keep up with increasing rents – not just in the town itself, but burrough areas such as Ballisodare.

Living City Initiative

Last month, the Heritage Council called for a scheme modelled on the Living City Initiative to be introduced in towns around the country.

The current scheme, which applies to certain “special regeneration areas” in the centres of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Kilkenny, offers a tax-incentive to homeowners to refurbish vacant houses.

The Heritage Council’s architecture officer Colm Murray, noted that provisional figures from this year Census found that there were more than 10,000 vacant houses not being used as holiday homes in 17 of the larger provincial towns, many of which are within commuting distance of Dublin and other cities.

Bringing this housing stock back into habitation would help revitalise and conserve the fabric of these towns, and the conservation costs involved would be much less than to construct new homes on greenfield sites.

“Re-inhabiting even half of these housing units that were vacant on Census night would also make a positive, and relatively speedy, impact on the Government’s housing objectives to deliver 25,000 units per annum as set out in its Rebuilding Ireland plan,” Murray said.

19/9/2011 Ghost Housing Estates File photo of a ghost estate in Co Leitrim Source: Mark Stedman

Speaking the Dáil about the possibility of extending the scheme to towns, Finance Minister Michael Noonan said: “Changes were announced to the initiative in the budget which aim to get the design of the initiative right so that it can be more effective.

“Once this is achieved and evidenced, it will then be possible to consider how, or if, the initiative could be extended to other locations.”

In Sligo, there are 1,365 (15.5%) such houses. There are 1,050 households on the council’s housing waiting list.

Kilgannon said many of the vacant house are buy-to-let properties in mortgage arrears, noting: “Certainly a lot of people gone into financial difficulties as a result of property collapse.”

He said the government could potentially but some of these houses so they could be occupied by people in need.

As for extending the Living City initiative, he told us: “As a public representative, you have to welcome anything that will get people housing, you would have to look at it seriously.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for told us the council avails “of every opportunity in public policy to grow the social housing stock”, adding: “Since the curtailment of new construction some years back, the council relies on acquisition of units to expand stock.”

Louth 

On Monday, the Dundalk Democrat reported that a homeless man died in sub-zero temperatures in the town last week.

Local TD Imelda Munster raised the increase in homelessness in Louth in the Dáil earlier this month.

Almost 4,000 households are on the council’s housing list. Within the county there are 157 people (28 families) in emergency accommodation. Of these, 60 people (11 families) are in Drogheda.

Munster said: “There are also 1,000 people with no other option but to go onto the housing assistance payment (HAP) scheme.

She there has been a 100% increase in the number of people registered as homeless in Louth in the last two years – up from just one person in 2014.

That is 100 people without a roof over their head who are lying in doorways or without any shelter or park they can find coming into the winter and Christmas.

“When that total is combined, we are talking about almost 6,000 people,” the Sinn Féin TD said, adding that many people have been on the housing list for several years.

Some €300,000 has been approved for Louth County Council to make void and derelict houses livable.

The census found that there are 758 (10.1%) and 710 (12.9%) vacant houses not being used as holiday homes in Drogheda and Dundalk respectively.

Homeless men 

Drogheda Homeless Aid (DHA) runs a 25-bedroom hostel for homeless men that is open and staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Most of the rooms are single, with one shared room with four beds. DHA provides a number of other services, including two transitional houses and three long-term houses, prevention services for people at risk of homelessness, and resettlement services.

The resettlement team offers home visit support to clients. DHA has resettled over 1,400 men in the last 15 years.

DHA has a capacity of 25 beds in its emergency accommodation facility and is currently at full capacity, as are the transitional and long-term units.

Some 133 men presented as homeless to the DHA in 2015. To date in 2016, 111 men have sought help.

shutterstock_226521718 File photo Source: Shutterstock/Photographee.eu

Louth County Council makes referrals to the DHA, as well as other homeless hostels and refuges in the area.

Maureen Ward, DHA’s manager, told us: “It is great that the issue of homelessness in Louth has been raised and we welcome this”, adding that Dublin is not the “only area which is badly affected by this problem”.

Land banks

Munster said there are 54 acres of land banks in the county that could be used for social housing provision, if the government provided funding to local authorities.

In reply, junior minister Catherine Byrne said the Rebuilding Ireland programme “clearly identifies that the local authorities will play a significant role in developing social housing right across the country”.

The local authorities have been identified and asked to make sites known – where these have become available – to the minister and to the department so that the process to make land available for the building of social housing, affordable housing and private housing can begin.

Byrne said a site located at Dunleer, about midway between Dundalk and Drogheda, will be delivered through a public private partnership (PPP) programme and “yield between 70 and 95 social housing units”.

The Fine Gael minister said PPP projects generally take “an estimated 37 to 48 months to deliver”.

“It is anticipated that the first units will be ready to move into in mid-2019. My department is working in partnership with local authorities and the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA.”

She added that planning processes are expected to begin in mid-February.

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

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Órla Ryan

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