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Dublin: 11 °C Friday 18 October, 2019
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Opinion: 10% of homeless families have been made homeless for a second time

Families exiting homelessness are increasingly accommodated in the private rental sector. But if the landlord decides to sell up – the family becomes homeless again, writes Wayne Stanley.

Wayne Stanley

EVERY DAY FOCUS Ireland hears from families of the emotional pain they experience in having to enter homelessness with their children.

Through our child support workers – we also hear directly from the children about how this impacts them.     

The recent report ‘No Place Like Home’ by the Ombudsman for Children gave children who are homeless a chance to have their voices heard.

That report provides independent evidence that even with the excellent support of the frontline staff in homeless organisations like ours- the impact of homelessness is devastating.

The thought that any person, especially a child, may have to experience this for a second time should be beyond imagining.

Sadly, this is happening fairly often.  

Last year around 10% of the families who entered homeless services had been homeless before.

How can this happen?

We know that around 70% of homeless families had their last stable home in privately rented accommodation. 

There are broadly two trajectories for families when they lose their home.

When faced with homelessness, many families are initially supported by friends or extended family members and this temporarily prevents them from having to present to homeless services.

But such offers of accommodation generally result in very stressful situations of severe overcrowding, sometimes eventually the situation becomes unsustainable and as a last resort, the families present as homeless to their local authority.

For some families – this can happen in reverse too.

That is they become homeless and enter homeless services, but upon realising the grim reality of living in the hotel room or B&B, they manage to get an offer of temporary support from an extended family member and so they leave homeless accommodation. 

They are still a homeless household but it is just that someone has taken them in to keep a roof over their heads.

Again the situations are usually overcrowded so it is not sustainable and sometimes it breaks down and the homeless family are then forced to return to emergency homeless accommodation again.

Before 2018, the above scenario would have been the case for the vast majority of the families that Focus Ireland identified as returning to homelessness.

However, over the last 18 months, the number of families who have exited homelessness into the private rented sector and returned to homeless services, has increased.

This is usually because the landlord is selling up or needs the property for a family member.   

It is important to say that the majority of those who leave homelessness do not return. Their numbers far exceed those who do return.

But the impact on those families who do become homeless for a second time is devastating and that issue has come into sharper focus in the last year. 

Last May Dublin City Council stopped prioritising homeless people for social housing

This means that for families who became homeless since May 2018, they are far less likely to get an offer of permanent social housing and thus the private rental market is usually their only option. 

Solutions?

As is always the case when discussing homelessness, the only solution for these families is in the provision of secure homes.

Permanent social housing offered a clear trajectory out of homelessness into a secure home.

Local authorities need to look at the allocation of their housing stock. The administration of a scarce resource such as housing is fraught with difficulty and it is not to be underestimated. 

Recent reports from Dublin City Council have evidenced that ending the priority for homeless families has had no impact on the number of families entering homelessness.   

Prejudicial and stigmatising commentary such as ‘queue jumping’ or ‘gaming the system’ can also have a negative impact on families.

We need to ensure that when a family moves on from homelessness into the private rental market and then because of the insecurity in that market finds themselves homeless again – that the local authority prevents them from re-entering homeless services. 

This could work in the case of HAP rentals in the same way that it does in another local authority rental system the Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS).

If a RAS landlord chooses to sell up, the responsibility to secure appropriate alternative accommodation for the family falls to the local authority, rather than to the tenant.

Of course, the long-term response to homelessness is the provision of homes and repairing our broken housing system. This will require a new vision for housing but in the interim, we can and should do better for all those forced into homelessness.

Focus Ireland has warned that the deepening homelessness crisis will not be ended without a shift in government policy.

The most recent figures show a new record total of 10,305 people homeless. Much good work is being done but the crisis will continue unless there is a substantial increase in social housing provision – and a move away from a reliance on providing more emergency accommodation and hubs. 

An honest reflection of the current situation must start from a recognition that the primary response to homelessness to date has been to build more emergency accommodation, rather than building more homes.

This approach will simply never work.

Since the homeless crisis began, Dublin has acquired thousands of extra emergency homeless beds but we now have fewer social houses than we did four years ago. 

The delivery of social housing nationwide is also failing to meet demand.

It is clear that delivering more social housing would also help people who are struggling to find somewhere to live in the rental market, as it would directly result in freeing up many privately rented homes that are currently used for HAP tenancies.

To deliver any relief to homeless families, the government and local authorities must drive far more ambitious social housing targets and build new, viable communities on the scale required to address housing need.

Wayne Stanley is a policy analyst with Focus Ireland.

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