‘Pinch point’ looms in struggle to house Ukrainian refugees

Lack of accommodation, together with stalled inspection and vetting procedures, and withdrawal of private home offers all point to extreme challenges in helping war-displaced from September on

Senior officials in the Department of Children and Equality meet twice daily to review the latest number of Ukrainian arrivals and to work on plans to house the thousands of refugees who have sought shelter in Ireland since late February. Each day, the work gets harder.

In the early weeks of the conflict, 4,000 Ukrainians arrived weekly. Today, the number is down to 1,400 people a week. So far, 35,000 have come, with 25,500 in State-provided accommodation.

Some pressure has been relieved by moving Ukrainians into empty student accommodation in recent weeks but that sticking plaster will only hold until the end of August when the new college term begins.

Despite a deluge of offers to house refugees in the days after the Russian invasion, Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman says there is now a “significant” concern that an accommodation shortage looms by the end of August.

In days and weeks after the Russian invasion, 25,000 pledges of spare houses or rooms were made but many of the homeowners subsequently changed their minds, could not be contacted or took refugees in independently.

In some cases, the same properties were pledged multiple times. Despite complaints from many homeowners that offers were never followed up, the Irish Red Cross says it has identified 2,800 available vacant homes and 6,600 spare rooms in shared homes.

Grindingly slow

So far, details of 2,800 vacant homes and 2,000 spare rooms have been shared with local authorities or organisations such as the Peter McVerry Trust, but the process is grindingly slow, with Ukrainian refugees occupying just 500 of the homes pledged so far.

Of 74 homes pledged in Dublin City Council’s territory sent to the local authority to place Ukrainians into, just 21 were deemed suitable to house refugees after inspections. Similarly, Fingal County Council were given details of 106 properties but just 36 were suitable. In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, a mere 16 pledged properties from a list of 127 have been deemed suitable and matched with refugees.

Robert Burns, Fingal County Council director of housing and community services, says the low numbers are a concern: “Maybe 30 per cent of what was referred to us was viable… My understanding is there would be a similar experience in other local authorities.”

Initial hopes that 20,000 people could be housed directly with the public did not hold up. “People just simply didn’t follow through. They may have had perfectly fine properties,” says Burns.

“Maybe their circumstances changed. Sometimes it was referred as a vacant space and it actually wasn’t a vacant home, or it may have been a cabin or seomra at the end of a garden which we didn’t feel was suitable,” he says.

Separately, every local authority has been asked to identify 100 vacant properties in their territory that could be converted to house refugees, including former convents, schools, military barracks or vacant offices.

Warehouse idea

“I wouldn’t rule out the idea of a warehouse either. What you would be looking at is [to] partition that building and adapting it to provide decent interim-type accommodation, with separate or shared kitchens, sanitary facilities,” says Burns.

Such buildings will have to be ready by September, he believes: “If there was a pressure point coming and a key time of concern for us, it’s probably around September… That for me is the deadline.”

So far, 500 buildings have been identified, according to the Department of Housing. From that list, 90 properties that could house more than 5,000 people have been assessed and the details passed on to Department of Equality officials.

Many religious orders have opened up convents and parochial homes, while the Christian Brothers have handed over a former retreat centre in north Co Dublin to house 100 Ukrainians.

Despite the withdrawal of offers of homes to the State, some people have entered into informal arrangements to host Ukrainians directly, including Angela Gough, from Ranelagh, south Dublin, who took two families of women and children into her home in early March.

Frustrated with the pace of the official efforts to house refugees in homes, Gough set up a volunteer group, Helping Irish Hosts, which now has a network of about 260 hosts housing Ukrainians.

The State and Irish Red Cross, she believes, failed to capitalise on the early surge of generosity, with well-documented delays responding to offers leading to a loss in momentum. “There should be thousands of hosts by now,” she says.

Liam O’Dwyer, the interim Irish Red Cross general secretary, says there has been delays in the Garda vetting required of prospective hosts, who had offered to take families with children.

Although O’Dwyer adds when vetting forms are sent to the Garda they are being processed in a number of days.

Change of mind

Only one-third of 3,800 people contacted have begun the vetting process, in some cases because homeowners were away on holidays or had changed their minds about hosting, O’Dwyer says.

While about 1,500 Ukrainians have been placed in pledged housing to date, the target is to house 6,000 by the end of August.

Looking back on the early weeks of the crisis when the Irish Red Cross was quickly flooded with thousands of offers of accommodation, O’Dwyer says more resources were needed to contact those offering housing quicker.

While the Defence Forces provided 40 personnel to make calls alongside 15 call centre workers, O’Dwyer believes the humanitarian charity “could have used a third call centre”, as well as more case workers.

The organisation has decided not to go back to people who had withdrawn offers of housing asking them to reconsider. “We have to respect that, they’re probably tired of our telephone calls,” he says.

Their initial efforts had to focus on getting a handle on what offers of housing had been made, before the slow and complex process of inspecting properties and matching hosts with refugees could be started, he says.

“The ad-hoc groups have been very good at matching people very quickly because they don’t have to do these checks.” While volunteer groups had nothing but the best intentions, informal arrangements did raise issues around safeguarding and vetting, he adds.

O’Gorman acknowledges the huge volume of offers in the early weeks was “far greater” than the Irish Red Cross could cope with.

“With hindsight that would have been done differently. We would have significantly upscaled the Red Cross beforehand, or we would have channelled the pledges through a different mechanism,” he tells The Irish Times.

“We all wish the pledge process had worked more quickly… I think additional capacity or an additional route for the pledges is something I would do differently.”

Despite the problems, officials had always expected the number of suitable pledged homes would be “significantly whittled down” from the headline 25,000 figure, he says.

Legislation to pay homeowners hosting Ukrainians €400 a month would “hopefully” be passed before the Dáil breaks in mid-July, he adds.

One source involved in the State’s effort to house Ukrainians says the Department of Housing should have played a bigger role early on, due to closer existing links to local authorities. The Department of Equality was “definitely overwhelmed” in the first few weeks as thousands of refugees arrived, the source said.

Hotels are providing the bulk of the near-18,000 beds contracted by the State to accommodate Ukrainian refugees, which has not been without problems.

A formal complaint from one Ukrainian, seen by The Irish Times, claimed residents had been told by hotel management up to eight people would be sharing rooms together. The complaint criticised the decision to have so many people, including young children and the elderly, sharing “such a tiny space”.

Gym floors

At times earlier this month, arrivals exceeded capacity at the main reception centre in Citywest Hotel, southwest Dublin, leaving people sleeping in waiting areas overnight.

Elsewhere, some refugees are still being sheltered on the floors of gyms and community halls. In one instance, about 40 refugees were placed into an unused building with one working bathroom and no proper cooking facilities, according to a source.

O’Gorman says in a “handful” of cases, the State had terminated contracts with private accommodation providers due to concerns over standards. In one case, both the accommodation and the service to the Ukrainian residents was “entirely substandard”, the Minister says.

The department had been on a “war footing” since late February and the type of accommodation that could be sourced reflected that, he says. “We’re not providing people with permanent homes, we’re not in a capacity to do that, we’re not providing Ukrainians with social housing,” O’Gorman says.

Another problem is a reluctance from some families put up in hotel rooms in Dublin to relocate to other parts of the country, having found jobs or enrolling children in nearby schools.

Lelizaveta Karamushka, a volunteer with Ukrainian Action in Ireland support group, says families have been frustrated by the lack of notice before being moved.

Karamushka, who has lived in Dublin for nearly nine years, says while support for Ukrainians remains strong among the Irish public, the outpouring of offers to help in the early weeks of the invasion could never be maintained. “It’s a natural reaction, you can’t live your life in the wars of another country,” she says.