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Eoin Ó Broin: We can end homelessness but absolute reform of the system is required

The Sinn Féin TD says we have to set aside our obsession with the charitable model and instead fund preventative services and new homes.

Eoin Ó Broin

THIS WEEK’S RTÉ Investigates documentary, Stuck in the Rough, was hard to watch. It revealed the harsh reality of living and sleeping on Dublin’s streets.

Importantly, the story was told by the people experiencing homelessness themselves. Dan, Natalie and Joe spoke their own words, shared the fears and frustrations and in public shed their tears.

The programme also uncovered a system in which our most vulnerable residents are let down, night after night after night. 

People in need of shelter, at the height of winter, were refused a bed because they did not have a ‘local connection’. And this on a night when there were 75 vacant beds in city centre emergency hostels.

The men and women who bravely agreed to have their lives exposed in this programme are being failed. Failed by the homeless system, failed by Government and ultimately failed by society.

Finding a way home

Of course, most people experiencing homelessness do not sleep rough. In recent years there has rightly been a public focus on the unacceptable number of families with children living in hostels, B&Bs and family hubs. 

But Stuck in the Rough reminded us of those whose experience of homelessness is most acute.

Up to 3,000 people, mainly single, struggle at the intersection of homelessness, addiction and mental ill-health. 

The question is can we do better by these men and women. The answer is yes, we absolutely can.

In December, Focus Ireland launched a campaign to end homelessness. Their online petition is urging people to make 2021 the year that the Irish Government starts to plan to end homelessness. 

But is this possible? Can any Government really bring homeless and rough sleeping to an end? 

In 2008 the then Fianna Fáil Government clearly thought so. The Way Home: A Strategy to Address Adult Homelessness in Ireland 2008-2013, was published by the then Fianna Fáil Minister of State with responsibility for Housing Michael Finneran.

The 90-page document committed Government to ending long term homelessness and the need to sleep rough by 2010. The plan was not just aspirational. It included detailed state-wide and local actions under various headings.

The key objectives were a greater focus on preventing people from becoming homeless while moving those in emergency accommodation or on the streets into their own tenancies, with wrap-around supports where necessary.

This policy, of moving away from emergency accommodation, and providing people with their own home, is what has become know as Housing First. It is the single most important element of any plan to end long term homelessness and the need to sleep rough.

When combined with properly resourced health, mental health, addiction and other supports and delivered at scale is it transformational. We know this from those countries that have all but eliminated homelessness, such as Finland.

Failure to launch

Unfortunately, 2010 came and went with much of The Way Home unimplemented. The deadline to end homelessness and rough sleeping was missed. The property crash, currency crisis and five years of brutal austerity intervened.

What is most disappointing, however, is that since 2012, the aspirations and actions outlined in The Way Home were not revisited. 

As austerity gave way to increased public spending the homeless and, in particular, rough sleepers, continued to be ignored.

Instead, as the economy returned to growth from 2014, our society was engulfed by a housing crisis that led to unprecedented levels of homelessness. Fine Gael’s 2016 Rebuilding Ireland housing plan promised to return to the policy of Housing First. But the number of such tenancies created since 2016 are derisory. 

According to a Parliamentary Question received from Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien to date, there have been less than 600 such tenancies in six years.

Given that we need up to 3000 housing first tenancies, it is not hard to see where the problem is. 

The last Government simply did not invest enough in homes and supports for those most trapped in the cycle of rough sleeping, sofa surfing and long-term emergency accommodation placement.

The New Government has promised ‘Housing for All’. It has 10 pledges on homelessness in its Programme for Government. Most of these are vague, promising to ‘increase funding’ without saying by how much. Committing to ‘expand’ Housing First without saying by what number.

The promise to ‘move away from dormitory-style accommodation’ is welcome but has no timeline. 

Talk of proper aftercare plans for people leaving state care, foster care or prison and a National Youth Homeless Strategy all sound good but lack detail, timelines or funding commitments.

It is hard to see how any of this is different from what had been advocated by Simon Coveney or Eoghan Murphy when they were the Minister for Housing. 

Change must happen

2020 was a hard year. For those experiencing homelessness in our cities, it was particularly rough.

Up to 60 people experiencing homelessness lost their lives on the street or in emergency accommodation. That is twice as many as were recorded in 2019 or 2018.

If we are serious about ending homelessness, we need a radical change in policy, and we need it now.

Housing First tenancies must be dramatically increased to at least 400 in 2021 and higher still in 2022 and beyond.

We need a timeline for the phasing out of congregated emergency accommodation and an annual and meaningful increase in the HSE health and addiction supports provided to people exiting homelessness.

All emergency accommodation, whether run by the state, voluntary sector or private operators must be subject to independent and unannounced HIQA inspections. The reports from these inspections must be published.

The practice of refusing people access to emergency accommodation on ‘local connection’ grounds must end and an independent review of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive freephone and placement service must be conducted.

This year Government will spend more than €218 million on homeless services. Less that 5% of this is on prevention. Every single euro saved when a person exists homelessness must be ringfenced and invested into homeless prevention.

Professor Eoin O’Sullivan is one of the countries leading experts in homeless policy. The head of the Trinity College Dublin School of Social Policy has decades of field work and research under his belt.

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Last year he published Rethinking Homelessness a powerful critique of our failing homeless system. 

He firmly believes that ‘ending homeless is possible’ but says ‘it will not be achieved through charity, compassion or caring, or through sleepouts, shelters or soup’.

‘It will require’ he continues ‘a disruption of our existing fetish with pathological policies and our refusal to reform our housing system’.

Crucially, he concludes, ‘homelessness can be ended through the large-scale provision of state-funded social housing.’

So, let us make 2021 the year we stopped managing homelessness and started to end it. Join the call for Government to set a date to end long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough. 

In RTÉ Investigates’ Stuck in the Rough, Dan, Natalie and Joe brought us into their lives. We all have a responsibility to ensure the Government does the right thing by them. They and the hundreds like them, deserve nothing less.

Eoin Ó Broin TD is Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on Housing and author of HOME: why public housing is the answer (Merrion Press 2009) and DEFECTS: living with the legacy of the Celtic Tiger (Merrion Press 2021).


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Eoin Ó Broin

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