As rental prices of houses and apartments skyrocket, especially in Dublin, thousands of Irish men, women and – unforgivably – children find themselves at grave risk of homelessness. Between them, local politicians and the Government must find a solution – and fast...
The local authority system is a good one in theory, but there are times when it’d make you despair. This is one of them.
It has been obvious for a long time that a homelessness crisis was brewing in Dublin. In a tragic incident that touched anyone who has a heart in this country, in December 2014, Jonathan Corrie died, sleeping in a doorway on Molesworth Street, just a few yards from where the Dáil sits, in Leinster House. Jonathan was a highly intelligent and educated man who had fallen on hard times. He was a drug addict and had been sleeping rough over a sustained period.
It would be simplistic to try to claim with any certainty that his life could have been saved: you have to recognise there are people who are not amenable to being helped, whether by the local council or the State. A number of interventions had been attempted with Jonathan. He also sought help. He still ended up alone and prey to the ravages of the weather on a freezing cold December night. To what extent that was a function of inadequacies in the system, or just because he was a genuine outsider who effectively refused to be corralled, we will never fully know. But what we can say is that his tragic death, so close to the centre of political power in Ireland, should have galvanised the authorities into sustained action on the issue of homelessness.
There was an immediate response from the Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, who announced, within days of Jonathan Corrie’s death, an increase to 220 beds a night for homeless people in Dublin. But seven months later, sadly, there is precious little improvement in the reality on the ground.
Over the course of the past fortnight, a number of cases have emerged of families effectively being thrown out onto the streets of the capital. The members of one Dublin family, including three children, aged five, four and two, were found outside Mountjoy Square in Dublin, by outreach workers from the 'Inner City Helping Homeless' charity. The family were preparing to spend the night in the park. According to the ICHH Facebook page, they had been evicted from their home in Fatima, Dublin 8, “by the banks.”
"When a family with 3 children under 5 are sleeping outside a park, somebody needs to hang there (sic) head in shame and resign,” a post on the Facebook page continued. "A heartbreaking sight!!!”
During the past week, on the Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk, another young mother, Amy McAllorum, spoke of her distress at being cooped up for months with her two children in a room in a hotel in Dublin.
The story is an increasingly familiar one. She had been renting a house for four years. The landlord, who was behind in his mortgage payments, was forced to sell the house by the bank – and she in turn had to up sticks and go. Hotel accommodation was arranged for her by the local authority: at least it was better than being on the streets. But she now lives in constant fear that the hotel will insist that it wants its room back, to hire out at a higher rate. And in any event, what sort of a life is it for young kids, living in a hotel room, where there are no cooking facilities, nor a washing machine – nor indeed any of the other basic facilities which normally enable us to get through the day? “I’m at breaking point,” Amy told listeners.
Listening to these stories, it is impossible to miss the complete absurdity of the State paying hotel room rates for months on end, to keep a roof over the heads of a mother and her two children. There has to be a better way. But what is it?
Every family’s story is different. However, the bottom line is that rent supplement payments have not kept pace with the sharp rise in rents in recent years. As a result, many families simply cannot pay the market price for accommodation. The Government sees a trap: if they increase rent supplements, that will potentially further drive rental prices up. They might just have a point – but allowing the crisis to escalate is clearly wrong.
Against that backdrop, Focus Ireland, the charity which works with the homeless all over Ireland, has called on the Taoiseach Enda Kenny to show the leadership required to tackle the spiralling crisis.
"The family homeless crisis is getting out of control and must now be responded to as a national emergency by the Government,” Mike Allen of Focus said. "This crisis is spreading around the country with families struggling in emergency accommodation nationwide, in counties including Cork, Limerick and Kilkenny, due to the growing number of people becoming homeless."
Meanwhile, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive has released figures which indicate that the number of homeless families doubled in the last year. In 2013, 20 families became homeless every month. In 2014, that figure had increased to 40 a month.
"Even these new figures don’t reflect the full scale of the crisis,” Focus added. "as many families who have been assessed as homeless have been refused emergency accommodation by hard-pressed local authorities as it is all full."
And there is another time bomb, waiting to explode. 616 family homes have been the subject of repossession orders in the first six months of 2015. While most of the current homeless have come from the rental sector, that may change as these repossessions are put into final effect. Indeed the Irish Mortgage Holders Association insists that up to 10,000 people are currently facing potential repossession orders. What began as a trickle could turn into a tsunami.
“There is a serious child welfare issue,” Mike Allen explained, “as there are now over 1,300 children, and their families, in B&Bs and hotel rooms across Dublin. The very idea that a number of children have had to sleep rough in our capital city is a disgrace and a failure by the Government.”
Only a fool would dispute that what we are seeing is a hopeless institutional failure. The problem is that it requires the different agencies to work together to solve it – and, unforgivably, that hasn’t been happening.
Earlier this year, for example, Minister Alan Kelly formulated plans to refurbish 64 vacant flats in O’Devaney Gardens, off North Circular Road, to accommodate homeless families at a cost of €5 million. It was a job that could have been carried out relatively quickly. However, in a decision that smacked of the Irish disease of NIMBY-ism, Dublin City councillors refused permission for the refurbishment.
More recently, Alan Kelly announced a new investment programme, which will be backed jointly by the Housing Finance Agency and the European Investment Bank, and which will target an additional 2,000 social housing units to be developed over the next three years. The plan is a solid one. But the current crisis also demands a short-term solution, especially in the capital.
Clearly, the Minister cannot solve the problem on his own. He is an easy target – but Dublin City Councillors have to play their part too, and quickly. Local vested interests cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the kind of action that is necessary to ensure that no more families can be tossed out onto the streets like so much disposable flotsam.
It is time for our politicians to stand up and be counted.
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