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Dublin: 10 °C Thursday 20 June, 2019
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"I never imagined the State would use such underhanded tactics to try and shame a private citizen"

Homeless campaigner Erica Fleming says that false accounts have been spread to try and tarnish her reputation.

Erica Fleming

MANY PEOPLE ASSUME they know my story.

If you are to believe the article about me in the Sunday Independent at the weekend, I am the homeless campaigner who has turned down two offers of housing.

If you are to believe the threads that have appeared on online forums and social media, I am a bad mother.

I have become, in many people’s eye, the embodiment of an abused system that is exploiting the contributions of hard-pressed taxpayers throughout this country.

My Twitter bio reads that I am a ‘Dublin mother of one forced to raise my daughter in a cramped hotel room because of FG/Lab/FF austerity’. I believe that statement to be true.

Being homeless

I am fortunate to have been in a position to have worked my entire life. I work as a receptionist each morning from 8am and finish work at 2pm to collect my daughter from school.

Yet in the three years before becoming homeless in June 2015, I lived in three different privately rented accommodations. Each month I paid my rent on time until the very moment that the landlord increased that rent beyond my capacity to pay.

I hate being homeless. Every night I lie beside my child as she falls asleep. I cherish the sound of her every breath. But I am aware that with each day she gets that little bit older, she is becoming more aware of how unnatural her surroundings are.

I have always sought to provide for my family. The fact that I work hard and still cannot provide the security of a home for my daughter makes me enormously angry.

My Homeless Family

In October of last year, I agreed to take part in a documentary for RTÉ called My Homeless Family that aired over Christmas.

In permitting those cameras to enter that small single room I shared with my daughter, I wanted to highlight to the rest of the country that homelessness wasn’t a condition that afflicted only the most vulnerable people in our society. I did not feel that I fit into any of the neat stereotypes that might be used as a reason why a person might become homeless. In addition to working Monday to Friday, I have never misused alcohol, nor have I ever been addicted to any other substances.

I felt strong at that time and was confident that I could use my story to force the government into action.

After the programme aired, I was invigorated by the level of support I received and found a great sense of purpose in becoming a public campaigner on the issue of homelessness. I organised marches, I spoke at rallies, and I accepted invitations to speak at different political events. I tweeted a lot, and many of those that tweeted back became my friends in real life.

Setting the record straight

In the months since that programme aired the strength which once defined me has dwindled significantly. The Sunday Independent ran a story this weekend stating with absolute confidence that “homeless campaigner Erica refused two housing offers”. They cited the source of their story as coming from an internal Dublin City Council report.

Firstly, the contents of this report are not true. I received no offer of social housing. The report that was passed on to the media refers to two telephone conversations I had with a member of Dublin City Council’s Pathfinders Team shortly after the RTÉ documentary aired in January.

I remember vividly the initial joy that I felt at the first phone call I received from DCC. They began by stating they had managed to source an apartment for me and my daughter. I almost burst into tears with happiness.

It was a couple of minutes into the phone call before I realised that this apartment was to be allocated through the HAP scheme.

The Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) is a system whereby local authorities agree to pay rent directly to private landlords to house their tenants. Tenants subsequently pay a weekly HAP rent contribution to the council based on ability to pay. Since January 2016 it is illegal for landlords to discriminate against people in receipt of payments such as rent supplement or HAP when advertising a property for let.

The important thing to note here: there was no official offer of accommodation made to me.

My friend Danielle Reid, a lone parent mother of one also living in emergency accommodation, has received 12 such phone calls from DCC’s Pathfinder Service and has yet to find a landlord that will agree to rent her a property. Danielle has permitted me to use her story as a demonstration of the failure of this system.

This is the extent of my conversations with Dublin City Council and at no time was I offered any actual form of social housing.

Lack of security

My main objection to HAP is the lack of security of tenure. My only ask during that phone call, and indeed the next one, was that I be given a lease that would guarantee the rent remained static or at least within DCC’s rent limit over the next five years. This request was declined on each occasion, and I never got the opportunity to meet with any landlord.

In the documentary that aired over Christmas, I made my position on HAP very clear. I have never sought to mislead or use my platform to gain favour over anyone else in the homeless system.

My daughter has already experienced the sadness of moving three times before our entry into the homeless system. I will not allow that to happen again.

Underhanded tactics

I understand that many people are struggling to meet their rent who will not be offered support from any State or local authority. But I should not be held accountable for a system that is clearly punishing working people in this country.

I also understand that this explanation will do little to temper the vitriol that has been levelled at me over the past number of days. I will just have to come to terms with that.

What I will not accept, however, is my private interactions with State and local authorities being leaked to the media to discredit me or tarnish my reputation. I have already sought details from Dublin City Council on this internal report that they have seemingly prepared in my case. I have requested information on whose authority this report was prepared, who had access to it and how it came into the hands of the media.

I began my campaign almost 10 months ago in the mistaken belief that I could force the State into truly confronting the growing homeless crisis that exists in our country. I felt that as a private citizen of a republic, this was my right. I never imagined the State would use such underhanded tactics to try and shame a private citizen.

Many will claim that I have reaped what I have sown. But my intention was to highlight a societal wrong. Those who seek to shame me in the media are just trying to shut me up.

In the end, I simply have to remember the reason why I began this campaign in the first place; my only purpose in life is to build a better life for my daughter Emily.

The only judgement that matters to me is hers.

Erica Fleming is a campaigner for the homeless.

Read: “This makes us homeless” – Tough choices lie ahead for squatters in abandoned Dublin prison

Read: Not just Dublin: Cork city sees the biggest rise in average rent prices

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Erica Fleming

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