‘I wouldn’t wish homelessness on my worst enemy’

Charity witnessing significant rise in families presenting as homeless

Chelsea Harris and her children Ruby and Louie at their apartment in north Dublin inner city. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Chelsea Harris and her children Ruby and Louie at their apartment in north Dublin inner city. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Sat, Aug 30, 2014, 01:00

Standing in a brightly lit apartment on Dublin’s north side, Chelsea Harris is negotiating with her 3½ year-old daughter Ruby as to the number of stuffed toys she can take with her as they prepare to go out.

With a pink dog called Tillie under one arm and a Tiger- like teddy under the other, Ruby leads the family out of the flat which she, her baby brother Louie and her mother have called home for almost five months.

But this isn’t home in the traditional sense – the family occupies one of 19 self-contained apartments in Rendu, supported temporary accommodation for homeless women and their children provided by Depaul Ireland, a cross-Border support service for homeless people and those at risk of homelessness.

“It’s better than the hotel, but it still doesn’t feel like home,” says Ms Harris, who became homeless 16 months ago.

The apartment is bright and clean and has a kitchen, something the 20-year-old missed badly in the 11 months the family spent in emergency accommodation in a Ballymun hotel.

“It cost me a fortune living in the hotel, having to eat out every day,” she says.

“ There was no fridge, there was nowhere to hold milk.”

Ms Harris, who expects to receive the keys to permanent accommodation through a Dublin housing association within the next week, will soon have moved out of homelessness.

However, the stress of the past 18 months is still at the forefront of her mind: “It was the worst experience I’ve ever went through in my life. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” she says.

“You’re being told you’re a priority but you don’t feel like a priority,” she says. “You’re just thinking, ‘why is this taking so long?’.”

‘Changing face’

Ms Harris and her family are part of what Kerry Anthony, the chief executive of Depaul Ireland, calls the “changing face of homelessness”.

The organisation, which will publish its annual report next week, recorded a 30 per cent increase in the number of people accessing its services last year, partly driven by it expanding into prevention services and a consolidation programme which has seen it absorb three smaller service providers in the past two years.

Of the more than 2,000 people who used its services in 2013, just over half were living with addiction.

But Ms Anthony says the number of families, many of them single mothers and their children, who are presenting as homeless has grown substantially in the past two years.

“In May 2013 there were 58 families in hotels in Dublin,” she says. “In May 2014 there were 143 families in hotels.”

The organisation is currently working with 13 families who are being housed in hotels and 21 families in B&Bs in the capital.

“It’s not an ideal situation at all. You don’t have access to an area where you can prepare food, you’ve got families living together in one room,” she says, adding that this affects people’s “sense of dignity”.

Ms Anthony says Depaul Ireland’s role is to help get people out of emergency accommodation into long-term, sustainable housing.

Rent hikes

However, rapid rent increases in the private rental market have brought about “real challenges” for the organisation. It is struggling to get people placed, which leads to blockages in the system.

“The Dublin rental market is saturated at the moment. There’s a massive issue for us in terms of, ‘how do we get people who are ready to move out of homeless services into mainstream accommodation?’

“There are such stresses and pressures at the moment within the private rental sector in particular that there are many people in supported accommodation for longer than they need to be.”

The situation in the wider rental market means the average length of stay for people being accommodated in Rendu is nine months, where it should be just six months under current housing strategies.

“The whole point for us is about ending long-term homelessness and moving people back into accommodation,” says Ms Anthony.

“ But it’s quite demoralising for staff at the moment, and even more so for the service user . . . the reality is that the housing stock and the supply of affordable, appropriate housing isn’t available.”

Mapping need

Ms Anthony points to a number of issues which need to be addressed.

These include a more comprehensive national housing strategy which maps need against supply to allow for better planning; regulation of the private rented sector to ensure sustainable tenancies for lower income households and a Government commitment to provide investment for new social housing units.

“Until we really get to grips with the fact that we need to have an investment again from Government around social housing spend, I think this is going to be a very difficult problem to solve,” she says.