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Thursday 23 March 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Too many families are facing homelessness. Why are we allowing this to continue?

DURING 2014, you could barely open a newspaper or turn on the radio without hearing a story about the housing crisis. The shaming statistics were brought harrowingly to life with accounts of families living in cramped hotel or B&B rooms; these parents trying to keep life normal for their children despite often being far away from their communities, having no or limited cooking facilities and being afraid of the potentially dangerous environments. And this doesn’t even cover those families forced to find shelter in their cars.

This steady stream of horror stories culminated in the devastating death of Jonathan Corrie and a flurry of action by the Government, and in particular Minister Alan Kelly, to tackle the crisis. While the majority of the commitments made at the end of 2014 were welcome – there was an increase in the number of emergency accommodation beds and ring fenced cash to construct social housing – what was missing was action for those living in unstable, unsuitable, inappropriate accommodation. Those families who (thankfully) aren’t sleeping on the streets, but who face a real threat of becoming homeless and simply cannot wait years for homes to be built for them.

The latest Dublin Region Homeless Executive figures revealed 371 families with 803 children were living in emergency accommodation last month. This is a 40% increase on comparable figures from last June when the Executive started tracking the number of families in emergency accommodation in Dublin.

Too many families are relying on private rented accommodation

Yet however worrying these figures are, they should not be a surprise. The risk factors for families becoming homeless are not being sufficiently addressed. The lack of development of social housing during the recession means too many families are relying on private rented accommodation. This leaves low income families completely vulnerable to market forces and private landlords with no safety net.

As has been well documented, rent supplements are not near enough to cover the actual cost of rents, too many landlords are still not accepting rent supplement clients and others are selling up leaving families with nowhere to go.

Barnardos is working with one family who are barely hanging onto their home. They are living in private rental accommodation but have to top up their rent supplement by a whopping €450 every month. This cash is being scraped together from child benefit and other social welfare payments, meaning other essential living costs simply cannot be met and other debts continue to mount up. And we know they are far from being the only ones.

Heartbreaking stories of desperate families 

The detrimental impact of the housing crisis on children is varied and intense. We are working with parents who have been unable to secure access visits with their children because the parent was in emergency accommodation; parents who have had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave their children in care for longer because they are unable to secure appropriate accommodation.

We know of one child who couldn’t get onto a waiting list for an operation because he was living in emergency accommodation and therefore technically was of no fixed abode.

The level of desperation is so acute that in some cases parents are considering becoming homeless voluntarily in the hope that six months in emergency accommodation will secure them more stable homes.

Imagine how terrifying and unsettling this is for children

The current stock of emergency accommodation remains totally unsuitable for families. The new beds are essentially dormitory accommodation in overcrowded hostels. Families housed in B&Bs often have to leave the premises during the day and wander. Parents have to travel further to bring children to school which affects their attendance and ability to participate. Families are living in rooms with no space to cook, do laundry, play or do homework and are surrounded by strangers. Imagine how terrifying and unsettling that is for children.

While the Government is taking steps to tackle the lack of social housing with €3.8bn allocated to provide 35,000 new social housing units by 2020, their response to the private rented sector issues is inadequate. Rent supplement levels are woefully low, and issues are emerging with the transfer to the Housing Assistance Payments meaning families have to make up the deficit to afford the rent being charged. There is also a continued reduction in the availability of the Rental Accommodation Scheme.

We need realistic, family-friendly emergency accommodation

The proposed ban on landlords refusing rent allowance and a pledge to consider some mechanism of rent controls are steps in the right direction, but they are not nearly enough. We need realistic, immediate rent controls and localised, family-friendly emergency accommodation. The mooted wraparound service for families in emergency accommodation centres involving a number of support services must materialise immediately.

We cannot say we didn’t see this coming. We cannot say we don’t know what to do. This information has been in the public domain for a year now. We must see Government action that recognises the particularly devastating impact housing insecurity has on children.

June Tinsley is Head of Advocacy with Barnardos, a children’s charity which works with vulnerable children and their families in Ireland and campaigns for the rights of all children. Follow her on Twitter at @june_tinsley.

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