Families in emergency housing ‘may be gaming the system’

Housing chief says families may be declaring themselves homeless to jump up waiting list

Families living in hotels and other emergency accommodation may be "gaming the system" by declaring themselves homeless to jump up the housing waiting list, according to the outgoing head of the Government's Housing Agency, Conor Skehan.

The Government may have “unwittingly” encouraged people to exploit the housing allocations system by prioritising “self-declared homelessness” in the allocation of social housing, Mr Skehan said.

In January 2015, following the death of Jonathan Corrie who had been sleeping rough near Leinster House, the then minister for housing, Alan Kelly, ordered that 50 per cent of all social housing available in Dublin city and county was to be allocated to homeless people.

Prior to this, 10 per cent of social housing was allocated to homeless individuals or families in Dublin city and 4-6 per cent in the rest of Dublin.

At the end of December 2014, 331 families were living in emergency accommodation, mostly in hotels and B&Bs. By the following December, there were 683 homeless families. That number has now reached 1,530.

In July 2016, the 50 per cent allocation order was dropped, amid concerns that general housing waiting list applicants were being disadvantaged. However, Dublin City Council continues to prioritise homeless applicants. Up to October of this year, 43 per cent of new tenancies in the city went to homeless people.

Self-declared homelessness

Prioritisation could be distorting homelessness figures, Mr Skehan said.

“We unwittingly created a problem by prioritising self-declared homelessness above all other types of housing need, which created a distortion in the waiting list system and may have encouraged people to game the system.”

A way to gauge this effect would be to look at whether there was a “notable change in composition” of people presenting as homeless over the period, he said.

“If you were a social scientist analysing it, you might find people who had chaotic lives suddenly being displaced by people who had two or three kids and who have found a way of gaming the system. If you were systematic about it, you might find that one or two constituencies were places where that happened more than anywhere else in the country.”

A number of British local authorities had already recognised and addressed this problem, he said.

“Many homeless authorities in Britain have a very simple rule, which is, that if you believe yourself to be at risk of homelessness you report that status to the housing authority and then as soon as you present they will deal with you immediately.”

Those who turn up already having become homeless go into a “much more slow moving queue”, he said.

“Their lists evaporated over night. Even the most chaotic person will get some kind of a tip from the landlord saying, ‘we want you out at the end of the month’. It stops the grandstanding, the local authority will be down in a New York minute to talk to the landlord to find out what the problem is,” he said.

‘Flushes problems out’

“If you’re saying you’re being thrown out by your mother, they’ll say, ‘oh we didn’t know you were living with your mother, that’s completely different set of circumstances, we’ll have a talk with your mother about that’. It completely flushes problems out.”

A recent report from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive found that half of families who became homeless in the first six month of 2017 said the cause was “family circumstances”, including overcrowded accommodation and the breakdown of relationships between family members or partners.

The head of the executive, Eileen Gleeson, said many of these families may have moved back in with family after losing their rented housing.

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly is Dublin Editor of The Irish Times