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These experts say giving someone a home isn't a 'solution' to homelessness

We speak to people working in Cork Simon and Sophia Housing, and find out the issue is much more complex than it might appear.

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IF YOU WANT to solve homelessness, is it enough to just provide someone with accommodation?

These experts say no – that moving out of homelessness requires support and commitment, and tackling other issues besides a lack of shelter.

Transitional housing

At Cork Simon, there are five high support houses in the city for people who are not able to live independently, and have found themselves homeless. They’re a transitional form of accommodation that help people move out of emergency shelters.

They’re staffed 24-hours a day by care workers and trained volunteers, and are able in some cases to help people move onto more independent living, or social housing with medium support.

In 2011, a total of 70 people stayed at Cork Simon’s high-support houses, 14% of whom were female.

CMK 14032013 Sandra's Story Picture: Clare Keogh

Collette O’Brien is team leader at the Leitrim St high support house. The gender mix there is 70% male and 30% female.

“Originally it was a response to rough sleepers,” she explains from her office that offers a view of the entrance hall and recreation room. There are CCTV cameras around the building, and the apartments are located along two corridors upstairs.

The rec room has a couch with a computer, a table with a bowl of fruit, bookshelves, even a treadmill. Outside is the smoking area, with a bench and enough space for a few residents to relax. The TV room is next door, and when we visit one young man is stretched out watching a programme.

On the first floor is a kitchen, where O’Brien explains that the residents are encouraged to cook, and to have a say in the day’s menu.

“We ask them, what do you want to cook today?” says O’Brien, adding: “They love fries.”

CMK 14032013 Sandra's Story Picture: Clare Keogh

The people living here simply could not live on their own right now without support. Like Sophia Housing (see below), Cork Simon recognises that giving someone a house is not the ‘solution’ to homelessness.

The people at the Leitrim St house have had their struggles in life. Providing them with a home, without other support, would not remove those issues, be they addiction, mental health issues, a childhood in care, or trauma, from their lives.

“The homeless person has become much younger,” says O’Brien. “We work with 18 – 25 -year-olds, answering to the need of the person.”

This type of housing brings people out from the emergency shelter and into a supported environment, while helping them to move on to a more independent life.

People can stay here up to a couple of years. The key workers work with them intensely and meet with them once a week.

The work, says O’Brien, “can be hard… it can be intense”.

“A lot of what we see here are care leavers, [due to a] lack of follow-up care,” says O’Brien. They also have active IV users who are referred to them, people with a gambling addiction, alcohol addiction, or head shop substance abuse.

A lot would come from housing situations where they were using in the home and they had younger siblings. The parents couldn’t cope, and they ended up in care.

Adults who were in care “may have limited education, may have dropped out of school. A lot of them are institutionalised, and don’t have living skills,” says O’Brien.

Getting back to basics

They take a person-centred approach. “A lot of it is just to allow them an experience of a home environment.”

“It’s very much about getting back to basics,” explains O’Brien. Teaching people how to “keep appointments, engage in the house, cook the dinner, [gain] employment and training”. There’s an activities coordinator, and in-house activities are arranged.

One recent resident gained employment as a chef after doing a FETAC training course at the house.

They have VEC tutors and a regular jobs club where residents learn skills for applying for jobs.

Cork Simon 3

“We help them if they want to rebuild relationships with family,” says O’Brien.

They also work with people on treatment options if they want to build a life that’s drug-free and alcohol-free.

Street work can also come up as an issue. It’s a topic that key workers try and broach. “If people are using and they are using a couple of bags a day, they are going to supplement,” says O’Brien.

Sometimes, it’s the small steps that are hugely important.

If someone pays rent three weeks in a row, everyone is thrilled. Rent would be a huge issue for drug users.

But it’s not all serious, says O’Brien: “As well, we have the craic, a lot of banter.”

Relationships

They try to build up relationships with residents and treat them with dignity. This helps in times of conflict. “You can 90% of the time talk them down. You may have to call the guards as a last resort”. There are house rules that need to be followed.

There is a “good rapport” between staff and residents, and they “try to avoid power imbalances”. They also hold residents’ meetings. There’s a balance – people are free to do many things, but also learn they need to participate around the house.

“Sometimes it’s about praising people, rather than always focusing on the negative.”

O’Brien says she wants residents to not be defined by their time at the house. “If you are 20, we just hope that years later this was just a blip,” she says.

There are good stories. There are some people who come here and they never work out. We never say ‘once only’ for someone. We are aware of the chaotic lives.

Sophia Housing

Who wants to be dependent, who wants to live on charity? They want to be enabled, to be supporting themselves. Our role is to give support but also teach people to live themselves.

Source: Sophia/YouTube

At Sophia Housing, they have a similar approach to Cork Simon in many ways.

They believe that “taking people off the streets and putting them into social housing, without addressing the issues that made them homeless in the first place, is not a long-term solution”.

Sophia helps people address the hurt in their lives that contributed to their homelessness, which in turn helps them to gain independence for themselves.

Declan Dunne, CEO of Sophia, says that if we think that by building lots of houses, and moving people into them, this would solve the homelessness issue, we’re wrong.

“Homelessness to me is a symptom of other things. It’s the core issues that have to be addressed,” he says.

There is a lot more going on for people that causes them to find themselves in that situation. A lot of it is not in people’s control themselves.

In one Sophia project in Cork, people who have come out of care live in apartments on the Cork Institute of Technology campus. To live there, they must be engaged in third level education, and agree to finish their education.

“We will take 10 steps towards the person who is looking for support, but we do actually expect they make one step towards us,” says Dunne.

“There is an exchange, there is a kind of agreement that people actually choose that they want to make changes in their lives in terms of those things that are affecting the quality of their own life.”

Source: Sophia/YouTube

At Sophia, people move in and live in housing for a minimum of three months, or even forever, depending on their circumstances.

The organisation has 241 units of accommodation spread around the country, including Dublin, Cork, Sligo and Limerick.

More than half of the people they support have a history of being in care, which Dunne says usually means they did not get the attachment they needed during their early childhood development.

In addition to that you have traumatic experiences. The real stories are more frightening than anything you will see in fiction.

Suicide is a huge concern among Sophia residents.

He says that the way the care system is run, it “actually doesn’t empower people to be independent and we can actually create a dependency experience and mentality”.

At Sophia, they expect people to do their part. “If you can’t then really you should go, because someone else can benefit from [the accommodation].”

“Lots of people will come here and we will immediately know we have people dealing with high expectations of us and unrealistic expectations.”

He believes some people suffer from “social dissonance”, where they are out of harmony with themselves, the people immediately around them, and the systems of the State, which means that they “are creating havoc” and “the costs to yourself, the family and State, is phenomenal”.

Care workers work on a continuous basis with the residents to help them progress in their lives. For some, that means checking in with them a few times a day.

At Sophia and Cork Simon, it’s about a helping hand, but it’s not about relieving people of responsibility. It’s a recognition that bricks-and-mortar homes are essential, but so too is support to help someone begin to address the issues that contributed to their homelessness.

Read all of our Homeless Ireland coverage>

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