The 2014 face of homelessness in Ireland

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 09:29

There are few more graphic illustrations of the plight of the homeless than two harrowing stories published this week in this newspaper. One recounts how a mother and her five children have spent the past three months in a hotel room in west Dublin. Another how, for the past week, a mother and her three children have lived and slept in a car.

People will indeed ask, how this can happen in 2014; where home is a hotel room used to accommodate a young family of six; or where home is a car - a desperate last resort for a family of four? Both these stories suggest that a new dimension to the homelessness problem is now unfolding – one in which children increasingly feature. In Dublin, more than 170 families, including 500 children, have been allocated temporary hotel accommodation by the local authorities, and they join an ever- lengthening queue for social housing.

Homelessness has all too many tragic human aspects, and a variety of causes. Ill-health or unemployment, family breakup, or unsustainable debt burden are often the precipitating factors. Those who become homeless struggle to adjust to their new status. The dispossessed become wholly reliant on the state or on private charities for accommodation.

Unfortunately, the state cannot cope with the soaring demand for social housing. The figures are stark – some 90,000 households are on the social housing waiting list - and the gap between demand and supply continues to widen. In the first three quarters of last year, a mere 253 social housing units were built, compared with 5,000 in 2007. The solution, however, is not simple: analysis is easier than prescription – given the economic constraints facing the State as the Government brings the public finances back into balance.

As the economy has begun to recover, the property market has finally stabilised. However, as too few new houses are being built to meet rising demand, house prices have risen and private rents have increased. Tenants who rely on rent supplement allowance find they must top up the state contribution in order to meet their rental payments. For many, renting has become less and less affordable, and the risk of dispossession has increased.

As landlords have also become reluctant to accept such tenants, this adds to shortage of rental accommodation for those in greatest need of social housing. Minister of State for Housing Jan O’Sullivan has suggested rent controls as part of the solution, but these could face a constitutional challenge. The National Asset Management Agency (Nama) has identified 4,653 residential properties as potentially suitable for social housing. But so far just 518 properties have been delivered.

Local authorities have the primary responsibility to meet the social housing needs in their area. But they have failed to do so. It is time for the Government to take the initiative in order to avert what is fast becoming a national crisis.

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