Young people forming new and growing wave of homeless as rents and cuts bite
Campaigners say Government policy on homeless is absurd
Project worker Barry Creamer in Dial House, Vereker Gardens, Limerick. He says there is a bottleneck in moving people out of temporary homeless accommodation which is “incredibly frustrating”. Photograph Liam Burke/Press 22
Seán Grandon never thought he would be the face of a new homeless population by the age of just 22. But rising rents, welfare cuts and caps on rental support means he is trapped in temporary homeless accommodation with little sign of a way out.
“This isn’t where I want to be,” says Grandon, who grew up in a housing estate close to Limerick city, but ended up homeless following a family dispute.
“Until recently I was in some fairly rough hostels. I could see the damage done by heroin. It’s not something I want to be around.”
Young adults like Grandon form part of a new wave of homeless, one that poverty experts and case workers say is growing.
Yet the problem is often invisible. Young people tend to shy away from ordinary shelters, out of fear of being victimised by an older, more battle-hardened homeless population.
Home for Grandon right now is a much safer and more comfortable six-bed residential unit run by Novas Initiatives, an organisation which supports those at risk of homelessness.
His support worker, Barry Creamer, says he is seeing more and more young people like Grandon these days.
Typically they can’t return home as a result of family breakdown. In theory, they are assisted to move out of temporary homeless accommodation and into a rented flat with support after a few months.
“There is a bottleneck and people like Seán are stuck in it,” says Creamer. “Getting a job is the only answer. But unemployment levels are the highest for his age group.”
Along with rent increases, welfare cuts targeted at those aged 25 – which have seen jobseeker’s payments fall to €100 a week – mean vulnerable young people often have nowhere else to go.
“It’s not right,” says Creamer. “The longer young people spend in those environments, the more likely they’ll remain homeless . . . It’s incredibly frustrating.”
Until recently, social housing was the main way the Government responded to the needs of the most vulnerable. But with the absence of money to build more local authority homes, the private rented sector is now the main safety net. In theory, rent supplement – a welfare benefit paid to those out of work – should make it affordable. But a combination of rising rents, a shortage of homes and caps on rent support mean many on low incomes are struggling to find cheap rented accommodation.
If anything, say experts, it’s a problem that’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
Veteran social justice campaigners such as Fr Peter McVerry, say it is now almost impossible for vulnerable young people to access private rented accommodation.
Limits on the size of rent supplement mean welfare dependent young people are priced out of the rental market – and that’s if they can find a flat willing to take them in the first place.
“This highlights the absurdity of the Government’s homeless policy which is almost entirely dependent on the private rented sector to achieve its objective of eliminating homelessness by 2016,” he says.
“After 30 years of working to eliminate homelessness, I believe the problem is now worse than ever, perhaps even out of control.” There are troubling signs that homelessness is getting worse. There has been a 50 per cent increase in the numbers sleeping rough in Dublin since last April.
Groups such as Focus Ireland and Dublin Simon say many more are ending up in emergency temporary accommodation because they cannot cover day-to-day living expenses, such as rent.
Another factor is a shortage in the supply of available rental properties – particularly in the capital. Stock in Dublin stood at 1,500 late last year, compared with close to 6,500 vacant properties four years previously. Some – though by no means all – of this relates to the demise of the bed-sit. They were outlawed under housing standards introduced just over a year ago
Few shed any tears at the disappearance of what in some cases were deplorable conditions. But the main representative group for landlords says the failure to provide cheap alternatives was always going to cause problems.
“We warned this would happen,” says Margaret McCormick of the Irish Property Owners’ Association. “Some [bed-sits] were of good quality. Now this most affordable form of accommodation has been taken away. So it’s inevitable that it’s increasing the risk of homelessness.
“Landlords don’t want to close down these places, and tenants in many cases don’t want to leave,” she says.
Now is probably not the best time, then, to halt the supply of social housing. But figures show that just over 250 local authority homes were built in the nine months of last year.
This compares to an annual output of between 4,000 and 5,000 social housing units in the years before the downturn.
New housing policies favour leasing arrangements with private landlords and a heavier reliance on not-for-profit housing associations (see panel).
Jan O’Sullivan, Minister of State for Housing, says the fall in funding for local authority homes reflected “financial necessity rather than political choice”. She recently announced a €100 million fund which has been welcomed by some as an attempt to kick-start construction of local authority homes. But this will result in just over 600 homes over the next two years, a drop in the ocean compared to the estimated 90,000 people on social housing waiting lists.
The housing charity Threshold estimates that in order to make real inroads into waiting lists, about 10,000 new housing units are needed annually.
In the current financial climate, this seems unlikely. But there seems one obvious answer: the National Asset Management Agency (Nama).
It owns tens of thousands of residential properties at a time when the Government is spending more than €400 million in rent supplement to tenants to help pay their private rent.
Nama has identified more than 4,000 houses under its control which it says are suitable for social housing.
Delivery is likely to be slow: red tape means it will take a number of years for them to materialise, and many may not be in areas where there is demand.
Groups such as the Irish Council of Social Housing say more urgent action is required. It supports an ambitious building and stimulus package which would have “the double benefit of creating jobs and taking people off local authority waiting lists”.
“It is essential that the Government address this issue now in an expanded programme of social housing delivery,” Donal McManus, the group’s executive director. “There is a real opportunity now for social housing to act as a catalyst in reactivating housing activity in areas of high demand.”
Even though he is stuck in homeless accommodation, Seán Grandon is fortunate in many ways. Home for now is Dial House in Limerick run by Novas. Here he has access to various supports and has started coaching soccer in a local school as a volunteer.