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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 19 November, 2019
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Column: Extreme poverty is right in front of us – and what are we doing?

One in five children go to bed hungry, yet State safety nets are actually being taken away, writes Sr Stanislaus Kennedy.

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy

EXTREME POVERTY IS everywhere in Ireland. Walk through our capital city and you’ll see homeless people on the streets, while the same sight is replicated in towns across the country. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it has become more prevalent in our society in recent years.

In 1986 an independent body was established to deal with the growing problem of poverty and destitution. It was called the Combat Poverty Agency, and for more than 20 years it played a key role in increasing awareness and understanding of poverty, while also influencing and informing government policies to tackle the issue in Ireland.

When the CPA was set up the rate of unemployment in Ireland was 17 per cent (232,000 people), while emigration had reached 28,000 people per year and almost 16 per cent of people were living in consistent poverty. Combat Poverty’s priorities in the early days reflected the major social and economic challenges of the time: unemployment, emigration and the poor state of the country’s finances.

Skip 26 years and Ireland finds itself in similar circumstances. With 430,000 now on the Live Register, an unemployment rate of 14.3 per cent, the country in massive debt and hundreds emigrating every week, an independent and influential organisation like the CPA is exactly what this country needs.

But it no longer exists. July 1 next will be the third anniversary of the abolition of the CPA.
Given the history and previous successes of Combat Poverty, and its experience in dealing with an Ireland in recession, the scrapping of the organisation has been a huge blow to the most vulnerable in our society.

The latest annual report from Focus Ireland showed that around 5,000 people are homeless at any one time, while a record total of nearly 100,000 households are on social housing waiting lists. Worryingly, one in seven using homeless services is a child, so clearly as a society we are still failing the most vulnerable.

‘One in five children reported going to bed hungry’

The impact of the current economic crisis on children is particularly acute. A new document published by the ESRI, Understanding Childhood Deprivation in Ireland, found that in 2010 eight per cent of children were in consistent poverty and some 30 per cent of children were in households which experienced deprivation. As these statistics are almost two year old, the situation is likely to have deteriorated further since then.

The human impact of these raw statistics is reflected in the findings of the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey, which found that one in five children had reported going to bed hungry in 2010, because there was not enough food at home.

So what is the Government doing about it? When the CPA dissolved in 2009, it was integrated with the Office for Social Inclusion to form the Social Inclusion Division, which is now based in the Department of Social Protection. This development seems to have resulted in more bureaucracy and less help for those most in need.

Take, for example, the State’s rent supplement scheme. In the past it was possible to get rent allowance and a deposit relatively easily, thereby housing people out of home in the private rented sector. Today the rent supplement system is centralised, bureaucratic and chaotic. It takes weeks, months – often even six months or more – to get a response, time which neither the landlord nor prospective tenant has.

This system is forcing people into homelessness, while eroding their self-esteem on a daily basis. They face barrier after barrier, while safety nets that once saved families from losing their homes – such as the supplementary welfare and rent allowances – are no longer accessible.

People are being forced into homelessness before they can get help. And while they wait for this help, the conditions they live in are far from ideal. Whole families living in a single hotel bedroom for weeks is an all too common scenario.

‘People are afraid to go into some emergency accommodation’

While there have been improvements in many hostels there is still emergency accommodation of such a low standard that people are afraid to go into them because of the conditions, the lack of support and because of the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs.

Often, however, people have to wait a critically long time before even having the option of hostel accommodation. In the past outreach workers from homelessness agencies like Focus Ireland and the Simon Community could get people a bed for the night. But with access to emergency hostels now centralised, that is no longer the case.

In Dublin, for instance, homeless people have to go through the Dublin City Council system of bed allocation, which means longer waiting times for people who have no time to waste.

Often, many in most need are only allocated a bed for one night and then must go through the same bureaucratic process the very next day. So they sit anxiously by the phone, often to be told to ring back in a few hours. By then it’s midnight or later. Such treatment is simply unacceptable.

Even in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, this situation cannot continue. Recent service cuts and new charges have impacted detrimentally on poor and vulnerable people, while the wealthier in our society have escaped these measures relatively unscathed.

If we do not move swiftly to ease the impact of cuts on the country’s poorest families while making well-off families carry more of the burden, we are in danger of storing up social unrest and disaffection. It is imperative that the Government tells us what it is doing – and what it intends doing – to protect the vulnerable and poor against austerity measures. It’s also critical that that the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion, published in 2007, is implemented fully and that the Combat Poverty Agency is re-established.

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy is a social innovator who has been a member of the congregation of Religious Sisters of Charity for more than 50 years, and has been active in highlighting poverty issues in Ireland. For more information, visit srstan.ie.

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Sr Stanislaus Kennedy

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