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Homelessness in Ireland has become normal, but talking about it hasn’t

More and more people are becoming homeless in Ireland – and that includes children.

AS SUMMER COMMENCES, bringing with it sunnier skies and dispositions, homelessness as an issue tends to lose its hold on the public consciousness. The perceived relevance of the problem diminishes, with homelessness reserved as a wintertime issue.

Although the sad truth is that homelessness in Ireland is a perennial problem, the issue only tends to draw the eye during the colder winter months. When the sun is shining and temperatures rising, its urgency is less evident.

My experience as CEO of Depaul has shown me that homelessness, on even the sunniest day of the year, is devastating. The year-round requirement for our services reveals that homelessness is a 365 day/year problem. As the head of an organisation working on the frontlines of the homelessness crisis, I would urge readers and policymakers to realise that it is neither moral nor cost-effective to treat homelessness as a seasonal condition.

Homelessness in Ireland

While rough sleeping represents the severest form of homelessness, the majority of people who are homeless in Ireland are not immediately identifiable as homeless. Instead, they are the 5,000+ people per year living in emergency or temporary accommodation, languishing on social housing lists or waiting in vain for affordable private rental accommodation to become available. They are the unofficial ‘hidden homeless’ – people with no fixed abode, who are ‘sofa-surfing’ or relying on the charity of friends to get by. They are those who remain in accommodation that is unsafe or unfit for purpose because they see no other option.

It is likely that someone you know is experiencing or has in the past experienced homelessness. Sadly, the truth of the matter is that homelessness in Ireland has become normal, but talking about it hasn’t.

The changing face of homelessness

The number of people presenting as homeless has continued to rise, with a significant increase in the number of children accompanying adults in emergency accommodation.

Latest figures from the Department of the Environment reveal that, over a weekly period, 3,143 people, including 1,118 children, are statutorily homeless in Ireland; 2,107 of these people (including 970 children) are in Dublin, while 1,036 (including 148 children) are outside the capital.

In the month of January, 2,980 people, including 865 children, were homeless in Ireland. This represents an almost 30% increase in child homelessness over a 3-month period.

Depaul have witnessed this trend across our Dublin services. In Quarter 1 (Jan-April) of 2015, we worked with 116 homeless children in Dublin; this is an 87% increase from the 62 children we supported in Quarter 1 of 2014.

Childcare costs spike during the summer months, putting vulnerable families at great risk

There is no sign of this trend abating. Indeed, summertime can present specific challenges for families at risk of homelessness. For vulnerable lone-parent families, which comprise 60% of families in emergency accommodation, the summer months can be particularly difficult. The cost of childcare and of providing three meals a day can sometimes be so much as to trigger homelessness in a low-income household.

For the many families temporarily residing in the homes of friends or relatives, the dynamics of having the child/children in the home during the day can cause these arrangements to break down. Landlords who may have been resistant to evict tenants during the winter months are more prone to proceed in the summertime.

Furthermore, on 2 July 2015, 30,200 one-parent households will be affected by the final phase of One-Parent Family Payment (OFP) reform. OFP reform thus far has coincided with increased levels of poverty and lower levels of education and employment in one-parent households; for instance, while 60% of OFP recipients were working in 2012, this number declined to 36% in 2014. The stated goal of this reform, to assist and encourage lone parents to re-engage with the workforce and better integrate into society, is commendable. However, we are concerned that, in the current housing crisis, these reforms could counter-productively push lone parents further from the workforce by exposing them to higher risk of homelessness.

Child homelessness is incredibly damaging and has devastating social consequences. Homeless children are more likely to experience adult homelessness themselves, as well as the myriad symptoms of deprivation such as unemployment or low-income employment, low socialisation, poor education, and increased risk of addiction, mental illness and poor physical health.

What is the solution?

We must tackle, as a priority, the structural underpinnings of homelessness. There are, quite simply, not enough homes in Ireland to meet demand; this has led to skyrocketing rents which show no sign of slowing.

We see in our services that the increasing disparity between monthly incomes and rents / mortgage payments is the primary factor leading to family homelessness. Many ‘ordinary’ households are becoming homeless due to rent or mortgage arrears.

Come rain, hail, or shine, the true narrative of homelessness in Ireland is a failure of the housing market, both in the private rental and private owned sectors, to provide adequate housing to all who need it. Depaul are encouraged by the Government’s commitment to ameliorate this failure through public housing construction and refurbishment.

However, while we wait for this rebalancing of the market, over 70 children will become homeless every month, posing a massive cost to both the individual and the Exchequer.

In order to catch at least some of these children before they fall into homelessness, we urge the Government to raise rent supplement caps, introduce rent control measures, and enhance tenancy security, as a priority. These measures will ensure that as many of our citizens as possible are sheltered, not just from the biting cold of winter, but from the year-long affliction of homelessness.

Kerry Anthony MBE, CEO of Depaul.

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