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Housing Crisis

'Six years ago we were in a bank's mortgage ad - now we're couch surfing'

There have been calls for the government to collect data on this kind of ‘hidden homelessness’.

A COUPLE WHO appeared in a well-known mortgage advertisement six years ago has said they have been struck by the irony of their brief foray into acting, having recently become homeless.

Robbie Barrett and his wife Sarah had lived for a number of years in a rental apartment in Dublin that was owned by a friend’s mother but had to leave at the end of last month as the property was being sold.

“We don’t blame them in the slightest, we understand they had to sell, but the rent we were paying there was really affordable and we just don’t have the funds now for what’s out there,” Barrett told The Journal.

“Looking for a new place was horrendous, it all just seems to be student accommodation or €1,600 per month for a disgusting little bedsit. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to have to move in with family and live apart because there was nowhere that had space for us to both go together.”

Sarah is currently sleeping on a pull-out couch in her father’s living room and Robbie has been staying at another family member’s home, but he said this is just a temporary arrangement and he will soon have to find somewhere else to sleep.

According to the latest report, rents in the second quarter of this year climbed to an average of 12.6% higher than the same period of 2021. The average market rent across Ireland between April and June was €1,618 per month and for Dublin, the average rent was €2,170. There were just 716 homes available to rent nationwide on 1 August.

The couple appeared in a television advertisement for mortgages with a bank back in 2016 and Barrett said it is “grim now to look back at that”.

In the ad, in which the couple were hired to act, can be seen smiling and dancing together in a trendy mid-century décor living room. 

“A friend was working with the production company and said their casting person wanted to know whether I’d be in the ad, then later they said the director had been looking at my socials and wanted to know whether my wife would be in it as well,” he said.

It was bizarre because we’d never done anything like that before and it was absolutely everywhere after. You couldn’t write that kind of irony, you know. When we were signing the contract for the ad and I remember saying to the production woman ‘can I waive the fee and just get a mortgage?’ and we all laughed. Looking back now it’s fairly grim.

The couple has applied to Dublin City Council for a place on the housing list so they can qualify for homeless Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), but this process will take a number of weeks.

“We’ll just have to wait for that now and hope it happens quickly,” he said. “In terms of emergency accommodation that just wouldn’t be suitable for us given our history of mental health, it just wouldn’t work for us, we’re much better off on a couch in a family member’s home.”

Barrett works full-time as a barber and Sarah is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, having decided to return to full-time education last year to upskill. Until recently she was also working part-time in retail, but her husband said her anxiety worsened when their living situation became unstable and she had to leave her job.

“We’re going through a daily routine of masking the stress so we can go about our days, but it’s tiring, we’re both exhausted,” he said. “We’ve been living together for almost ten years so it’s hard to be apart as well.”

In a recent post he shared with friends on Instagram, he wrote that the feeling of helplessness had become overwhelming for them:

“The loss of control over our own lives can not be overestimated. The very real idea that we are overlooked, invisible and just unimportant is devastating.

“As I’m typing this I am also preparing to move again to another family member’s home as my current living situation is in flux. There doesn’t seem to be a tunnel, let alone a light at the end.

“It’s not supposed to be so difficult to just live. We feel as though Dublin has broken up with us.”

‘Upheaval and loss’

Housing charity Threshold, which assisted almost 20,000 households in Ireland last year, has said many couples who are renting are in similar situations, unable to save for a ‘rainy day’, moving from one house share to another or forced to couch surf. 

The percentage of people who are renting because they cannot buy their own homes increased from 49% in 2020 to 64% in 2022, according to a survey carried out by the organisation.

When it came to moving, 92% found it difficult or extremely difficult to find a new rental home. 

Threshold CEO John-Mark McCafferty told The Journal that the service was contacted last year by 128 people who were living with family and friends as a result of having to leave their homes and not being able to find another. Of that, 71% had received a notice of termination from their landlord and nine had been illegally evicted.

Up to the end of August this year, the organisation had been contacted by 64 clients in this situation, 49 of whom had received notice of termination. In three cases the tenants had been illegally evicted. 

McCafferty said this kind of unstable living situation can be “very discommoding”, particularly for families with children who may have to travel long distances to school from their new accommodation. 

“It’s an upheaval and a loss, they’re mourning the loss of a home – you have to remember that while it’s a property for a landlord it was a tenant’s home.

“Because there is nothing in terms of alternative accommodation, very few families or individuals are finding any alternative accommodation to move into and live independently.

“Five or six years ago there was a greater supply but there’s such a lack of supply now that the prospect is bleak. This means they’re spending much longer in a couch-surfing scenario than in previous years.”

McCafferty said the organisation has also heard that access to local authority emergency accommodation is “very, very difficult” and that some local authorities outside Dublin are sending people to the capital, adding further pressure to strained services. 

He said there is a need to better track this type of hidden homelessness, which is not included in official homeless figures.

“A wider definition of homelessness is needed, it should be part of our understanding and our analysis to inform all of the services that address the issue of homelessness and prevention measures,” he said.

“We need to have better data on hidden homelessness and the paths into it at an official level, that’s really important.”

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