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Peter McVerry: 'It should be made illegal for the next three years to evict people onto the street'

To declare a housing and homeless emergency would enable emergency actions to be taken for a short period of time, writes Peter McVerry.

Peter McVerry

IF A COMPANY was losing money every month, the CEO would be asked to produce a plan to reduce the losses, and eventually eliminate them.  If, for 17 of the next 18 months, the company continued to lose money, the directors would conclude that the plan wasn’t working and a new plan was required.

Since the government plan, Rebuilding Ireland, to reduce homelessness was introduced in July 2016, the number of homeless people, homeless families and homeless children has continued to increase. Even a 12-year-old child would conclude that it isn’t working.

An emergency

In fact, Rebuilding Ireland is more an aspiration than a plan, a series of shot-in-the-dark interventions.  The few outcomes to which it aspires have never been achieved.

Indeed, the Minister for Housing, on a TV debate just before Christmas was asked if he could give an assurance that the number of homeless children next Christmas would be less than the number this Christmas and he stated that he could not give that assurance.

The Taoiseach was asked recently when we could expect to see the number of homeless people reducing, and he said that he was unable to answer that question. We need to declare a housing and homeless emergency.

To declare a housing and homeless emergency would enable emergency actions to be taken for a short period of time, actions which the government might not otherwise contemplate. Such actions would include:

Housing supply

A commitment that public land should be used exclusively for public housing. The local authorities own 1,211 hectares of services land which is zoned for residential development. This is capable of providing 37,950 houses.

A combination of social housing, cost rental housing, affordable housing and co-operative housing would provide the mix of public and private (affordable) which the government insists on. Of this total, 120 hectares are in Dublin city, which has a social housing waiting list of over 20,000 households, and could provide 12,017 houses.

An empty homes strategy

According to Census 2016, there are 186,000 permanently empty, boarded up, habitable houses and apartments in the country. Many of them are unsuitable (eg in areas of low demand) or not available (eg part of the ‘fair deal’ scheme), or may already have been brought back into use since the census.

But some would be suitable. Where the owners are unable or unwilling to bring them back into use, compulsory purchase orders should be used.

Preventing evictions

The majority of people and families who are becoming newly homeless have been evicted from the private rented sector, either because they cannot afford the increasing rent, or the house has been repossessed because the landlord has fallen into mortgage arrears, or the landlord decides to sell the house or needs it for a close relative to live in.

It should be made illegal for the next three years for banks or vulture funds or landlords to evict people onto the street, except in extreme circumstances such as refusal to pay rent or antisocial behaviour, in which cases a fast-track process through the courts should be available to landlords.

Expansion of mortgage to rent scheme

There are 32,000 owner occupied homes in mortgage arrears of more than 2 years.  Many of these homes are in danger of repossession and the occupants evicted.

The ‘mortgage to rent’ option should be expanded and made obligatory on the banks, unless exceptional circumstances prevail.

Rough sleeping

Some homeless people sleep rough because they feel safer on the street than in some emergency hostels. They are afraid of being bullied, assaulted, robbed or having to share a room with active drug users.

Rough sleepers are regularly told that there are no beds available and offered a sleeping bag. There should always be sufficient beds available for everyone who needs one (not just at Christmas).

There should be written quality standards and regular inspections of emergency, one-night-only, accommodation. A minimum standard should be that each person has his/her own enclosed ‘space’ where they can close their door, go to sleep knowing that they will not be assaulted during the night, that their belongings will still be beside their bed when they awake and if someone chooses to inject heroin or smoke crack cocaine in the next ‘space’, it does not impact on anyone else.

No-one should have to ring the ‘free phone’ to get a one-night bed (which involves leaving the hostel early in the morning and walking the streets all day) for more than five days. After that, a six-month bed, with 24-hour access, should be available to them.

Fr Peter McVerry has been working with young people experiencing homelessness for more than 30 years.

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Peter McVerry

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