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Column: With so many empty houses, why are people still homeless?

Almost 4,000 people are homeless in Ireland. Joyce Loughnan of Focus Ireland outlines what we need to do.

Joyce Loughnan

A SPECIAL CENSUS report titled Homeless Persons in Ireland recently found that 3,808 people were homeless on census night of April 10th 2011.

It is a positive move that the resources were put in place for the Census to examine the issue of homelessness. This report can be used – in addition to prior research – to inform future services and policy development. However, it’s important to note the Census figure provides a snapshot in time, not the full picture.

It does not capture the number of hidden homeless which includes people “sofa surfing” ie people who are homeless and are staying with friends or relatives. It is hard to estimate the number in this situation but we are finding through our work at Focus Ireland that sadly this is happening to more people. There are also many more at risk who are struggling to keep a roof over their head.

What is clear from the report is that one in seven people who are homeless is a child under 18 years of age. These stark figures show that more urgent Government action is required to tackle – and prevent – homelessness.

To most people it must seem crazy there are still people who are homeless while at the same time there is a massive surplus of housing. Why? Successive Governments failed to deliver access to housing for those most in need in society.

Focus Ireland would argue that housing became viewed by the State as an economic commodity. During the so called ‘boom years’, Government policy was directed towards driving output to produce “units” of accommodation rather than building homes – the foundation on which to build and sustain local communities. As we know this approach failed spectacularly and our country will pay the price for years to come.

Terrible damage

Long-term homelessness can be solved if access to housing is improved. Our work proves it’s possible to support people to move on from homelessness and settle back into local communities – once the housing and supports required are in place. We also see the terrible damage being homeless does to people if they remain stuck in that situation.

A review of the 2008-2013 National Homeless Strategy is to be published shortly and it’s vital that every action is taken by the Government to deliver improved access to housing for people who are homeless. The housing can be provided through a number of ways:

  • NAMA to fast-track suitable housing to deliver a social dividend.
  • More effective Government leasing schemes so local authorities can strike deals with landlords to provide secure housing for people in need.
  • Reverse the cuts to the Rent Supplement payments (especially for single people) to ensure access to accommodation for those at risk

The strategy must also support measures to prevent homelessness. Focus Ireland has realigned our own services in recent years to place a greater emphasis on targeted prevention services along with provision of advice and information. We are already seeing the impact as we are helping to prevent more people from becoming homeless.

To solve any social problem like homelessness we must understand why people become homeless. As a society we must also support action to drive solutions and not simply blame people who are marginalised as the architects of their own misfortune.

There are many reasons people become homeless including poverty, family breakdown, a childhood in State care, addiction to drugs/alcohol and/or mental health problems. These are the recurring issues that crop up in personal histories. To effectively combat homelessness these problems must be tackled through targeted services, including aftercare, access to education, community mental health services and drug-treatment facilities.

In addition to securing appropriate housing , some families and single people require ongoing support to enable them to live as independently possible in their own home and prevent them from becoming – or returning to – homelessness.

Saving money

This approach makes both moral and financial sense. It’s the right thing to do to support people who need our help – and it also saves the State money, as the more people are supported to live in their own homes, the need to spend on expensive emergency accommodation is reduced.

We have also found that the more secure families’ living circumstances are, the more chances there are for their children as they are growing up in a more stable environment.

Our Government must realise that failing to address issues such as homelessness not only makes the existing problem worse it also leads to many other problems for society in the future; for example people falling into addiction, deteriorating mental health, some people being exploited and others getting involved in low level criminal behaviour.

Demand for services from charities such as ours is increasing as more people feel the full impact of the economic downturn. We work hard to support people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless but all the support in the world can’t replace the loss of your home. In such a climate it would be disastrous if the government were to cut existing levels of funding in the forthcoming Budget. They must first provide access to sufficient housing and support services in the community.

It’s important to remember much good work is being done in these tough times. We must remember it is still possible to overcome the greatest challenges if the right priority and focus is given by the State.

The correct approach to tackle a social problem is often only taken if it is demanded by society. We all have a responsibility to demand action to tackle issues like homelessness.
Ireland must plan for the future now. It’s time for Ireland to consider the long term when tackling societal issues and build a more sustainable society , both for now and for the future. Let’s leave the short-termism thinking and failed policies in the past – where they belong.

Joyce Loughnan is the CEO of Focus Ireland. To find out more about Focus Ireland’s work go to focusireland.ie. People can support the charity through volunteering, taking part in events, donations and/or supporting its campaigns.

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Joyce Loughnan

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