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Fog in Dublin city centre on Monday.
Cold Snap

Outreach groups 'doing all they can' so rough sleepers take up emergency accommodation

‘For a whole variety of reasons they may not trust services, they may not trust workers at those services.’

OUTREACH GROUPS ARE “doing all they can” to ensure people sleeping rough take up offers of emergency accommodation during the current cold snap.

During the extremely cold weather period in March of 2018, dubbed ‘The Best from the East’, some homeless people had to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act after refusing to enter emergency accommodation, according to reports at the time.

Several outreach groups detailed to The Journal what they were doing to encourage people to take up emergency accommodation offers this week.

‘Slow and steady work’

Paul Sheehan of Cork Simon Community spoke to The Journal about how trauma and distrust of institutions that can prevent people from engaging with outreach services.

Sheehan said that Cork Simon Community has created “as much space as we possibly can to make sure anybody who wants to come in from the cold has an opportunity to do so”.

He said the accommodation centre has been “packed to the rafters over the past week” and that every bit of space is being utilised.

“We’ve created extra space on the floor of our day service, and we’ve had people sleeping on sofas and on the floor and in the rec room and TV room in our emergency shelter, under stairs, any space we can find we are making it available for people to lay down.”

Sheehan acknowledged that “there are a few people who don’t want to come in for a whole variety of reasons”.

However, he added that the “outreach team have doubled their efforts on the street and they are out a lot more often and making sure they know that there is a welcome for them in our services, and making sure they know where to go”.

“The people we’re meeting sleeping rough now, for a whole variety of reasons they may not trust services, they may not trust workers at those services.

“They may have experienced trauma that causes them to distrust people. Some are long term rough sleepers who are almost institutionalised into rough sleeping.

“Some people are very withdrawn and their mental health is such that they may not particularly be comfortable going into an emergency shelter that is packed to the rafters.”

Sheehan says it can be “slow and steady work” to build up trusting relationships.

“Our outreach team spend a lot of time trying to build up a trusting relationship with that group of people. Sometimes that can take months or longer and that work never ends.

“It can be just making sure they’re there every day checking in on them. That might lead to them accepting some warm clothing or some sleeping bags, particularly at this time of year.

“That might progress to engaging in conversation, being a little more open, and obviously there’s a huge sense of relief when somebody does finally decide to come in out of the cold, or any weather really, and avail of the services because that really can be the start of somebody’s journey out of homelessness.”

Sheehan commended the “incredible” work done to build up these relationship and said an upside to the work is “eventually getting that somebody who has been reluctant to engage into services”.

He added: “There might be something there that and clicks with people to say, ‘this isn’t as bad as I thought it might be,’ and their journey out of homelessness can begin.”

Cold snap 014 A rough sleeper shelters in a cardbox box in Dublin City Centre on Friday, 9 December.

When asked under what circumstances someone would be sectioned if they refuse to take up offers of emergency accommodation, Sheehan says it is a decision Cork Simon Community would not make on its own.

“That would need a broader input,” he told The Journal. “We are certainly working very closely with local authority here and with HSE and we’d be in touch with the gardaí to make sure they know who’s out and sleeping rough and just to keep an eye out for them.

“We have a HSE primary health care team based in our services and they are made aware of who’s sleeping rough. So if that decision has to be made or would have to be made at some point, it would have to be made by everybody working together.”

Reflecting on the numbers of people in emergency accommodation centre currently, Sheehan warned that “it is not a solution and can only be temporary”.

“You’ve got a large number of people in a confined space, many of whom have very complex needs, and have experienced severe trauma in their lives, trauma on top of trauma.

“It’s challenging for the people who are using the emergency shelter, it’s challenging for the staff and volunteers there, it is a real pressure cooker.

“That can only be temporary. We’ve seen an increase in the need for emergency accommodation here in Cork grow slowly but steadily over the last few months.

“Last month, we had an average of 75 people stay in our shelter, and that’s the highest number we’ve ever seen since the emergency shelter opened.

“There is no question that there is a need for additional emergency accommodation and that’s something that we need to look at once we get over this challenge.”

‘Personal trauma’

Meanwhile, Pat Doyle, CEO of the Peter McVerry Trust, told The Journal that the charity has so far mobilised 35 cold weather beds, predominantly in Dublin, and that a further 66 emergency beds are on standby across Dublin, Kildare and Meath.

He added that the Peter McVerry Trust has extended the hours operated by its Housing First Intake Team in the Dublin region, with staff now engaging people sleeping rough from 7am in the morning to 1am at night.

Doyle said this is in an effort to “try to encourage people into services and provide them with transport to get there” and that this will continue into at least the weekend.

However, he acknowledged that “there are a number of reasons why people who need a bed for the night need encouragement and support to take up the offer”.

“People have understandable practical concerns which our intake team work to address, such as transport, pet care or finding suitable accommodation for couples,” said Doyle.

The Peter McVerry CEO added: “There will also be more complex reasons why some people experiencing homelessness might be reluctant to access services, such as their own personal experiences with institutions in the past, personal trauma or their mental health. Our team are doing all they can to make sure these people are not left out in the cold.”

Doyle also noted that they have “learned hugely from previous responses such as the ‘Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma”.

As a result, he said they “now have a set of services with additional extreme weather capacity on a permanent state of readiness, with all the required items needed to make the beds available within an hour of being called upon”.

“This means regardless of it being an extreme weather event, a major incident, or an emergency leading to a closure of another hostel in the sector, we can readily respond and accommodate those in need,” he added.

The Journal also contacted the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive about its response to the current cold snap and efforts to ensure everyone avails of emergency accommodation during extreme weather events.

The DRHE confirmed that since last month, it has been increasing its bed capacity as part of a “cold weather strategy”.

Meanwhile, all emergency accommodation is provided on a 24-hour basis with meals.

The DHRE said it is “working directly with rough sleepers from 7am to 1am daily” and that a back-up service is in place throughout the night for those who do not wish to take up an emergency accommodation.

The DRHE also confirmed that its protocol is in place, which sets out the “coordinated response activated during extreme weather conditions or adverse events”.

This includes increasing support service staffing and the operational hours of the housing first intake team, enhancing day services, and opening up additional emergency placements and shelters for people sleeping rough.

The DRHE has also encouraged people to use the free Dublin City Rough Sleeper Alerts app if they come across someone sleeping rough.

Meanwhile, the spokesperson said they work in partnership with Dublin Simon Outreach and the Peter McVerry Trust Intake team, “is assertively working on the streets offering accommodation to all rough sleepers”.

The spokesperson said the “Outreach Teams ensure that people sleeping rough are linked with appropriate health services such as addiction and mental health services”.

They added: “The teams are very familiar with the locations of people sleeping rough across the Dublin Region and work persistently with individuals to support them into emergency accommodation and/or housing first.

“This process can take time and multiple contacts, as some people may choose not to engage, but the teams persevere with every person working to achieve a successful outcome. The teams can access specialist health supports directly provided, or funded by, the HSE.”  

Outreach responses

Meanwhile, Focus Ireland told The Journal that it has opened its coffee shop on Eustace Street on a 24-hour basis after being asked to do so by the DRHE.

This will continue until Saturday and a Focus Ireland spokesperson said this will “ensure any person sleeping rough who is unable to access emergency accommodation has somewhere safe and warm to spend the night, with trained staff on hand if needed”.

While the Focus Ireland spokesperson said the priority at the moment is to keep people safe on the streets, they added: “We need to remember that over 11,000 people will spend their Christmas homeless in emergency accommodation, including nearly 3,500 children.

“Our collective efforts to keep people safe during the winter crisis, just like Covid, reminds us that homelessness is not inevitable.

“The cold weather is a natural phenomenon, but homelessness is not. It is due to bad policies and can be ended, over time, with effective decisions delivered with more urgency.”

Elsewhere, Colette Coughlan from COPE Galway also confirmed that a severe weather response is in place.

She said 20 beds are currently available but more can be located if the need arises.

She too encouraged people to identify rough sleepers to COPE Galway, and added that an outreach team is ensuring that rough sleepers are made aware that they can avail of support.

She said a day centre is also available where people can get a hot meal and that this has been extended during the cold snap.

Campaigners working in the homeless sector in Dublin urged anyone concerned about the issue to download the free DRHE app which allows members of the public to alert the agency to the locations of people sleeping rough so outreach teams can make contact.

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