Homeless organisations hit back at suggestion they encourage tent living

Dublin City Council CEO’s remarks described as a ‘distraction from failed policies’

Dublin Simon said sleeping in tents was ‘not safe’ and left people ‘vulnerable to attack, overdose or illness’. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Dublin Simon said sleeping in tents was ‘not safe’ and left people ‘vulnerable to attack, overdose or illness’. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Organisations working with homeless people have hit back at comments by Dublin City Council chief executive, Owen Keegan, in which he suggested they prevented people who were sleeping in tents from accessing emergency accommodation.

His remarks are described on Tuesday as an “inadequate response” to the homelessness crisis and a “distraction…from failed policies” over which he presides.

Mr Keegan was appointed chief executive of the council in September 2013. Since December 2014 the number of adults (without children) in emergency accommodation in the capital has increased by 89 per cent, from 1,600 to 3,024 in June.

Speaking on Newstalk radio on Monday evening, he said he did “not accept” some people felt safer in a tent than in a shelter.

“I think being out on the street in a tent is objectively much less safe than being in a professionally managed hostel,” he said, adding: “There is a whole industry out there about sustaining what we believe is an unsafe and inferior form of accommodation for homeless people.”

Shelter-led response

Mike Allen, head of advocacy with Focus Ireland, said the proliferation of tents across Dublin was “a clear indication of failure and should not be defended, but sound-bites which appear to blame one group or another for the problem polarise positions and move us further away from solutions”.

The council’s response to the now seven-year long homelessness crisis has not been to provide an adequate supply of social housing, he said, but instead more and more emergency beds. Increasingly these were in the private sector with “few or no trained care or support staff,” he noted. It was this that had “undermined the perception of homeless shelters as a place of safety.

“The current debate is an opportunity to highlight the limitations of a homeless strategy which, for all the rhetoric about being housing-led, has been a ‘shelter-led’ response. The number of shelter beds for single people rising from just over 1,000 in 2014 to over 3,000 today. The number of new shelter beds opened is many times greater than the number of social houses built in the city.

“While we share Mr Keegan’s view that living in a tent on the street is objectively more dangerous than living in emergency accommodation, if people feel safer in their tents it is not an adequate response to just ‘disagree’ with them,” said Mr Allen.

“We need to understand why people are anxious about organised shelters and respond to those concerns. The availability of cheap tents which are easy to put up in urban spaces has given people who are homeless some limited choices, the choices people make in these circumstances should lead us to reflect on what we are doing and what we can do better.

“Taking away their tents and reducing their limited choices is not an ethical or effective solution.”

Distraction

David Hall, acting chief executive of the Inner City Helping Homeless organisation said Mr Keegan’s comments “distract from failed policies that have led to the increase in homelessness across the city.

“The question he should be asking is why some people feel safer in tents on the streets than in State-funded hostels. Many people have had previous negative experiences within the hostel system and feel safer sleeping in a tent. Not all emergency accommodation is supported as approximately 50 per cent of hostels are now privately operated.”

Pat Doyle, chief executive of the Peter McVerry Trust which operates several emergency hostels in the capital said almost 80 per cent was in single or twins rooms.

“But entrenched rough sleepers are hostel-resistant for a multitude of reasons. The solution is neither more hostels nor tents. It’s Housing First.”

A spokeswoman for Dublin Simon, which operates the emergency rough-sleeper outreach team, said sleeping in tents was “not safe” and left people “vulnerable to attack, overdose or illness.

“There are many different types of emergency accommodation, with services ranging from supported accommodation where clients receive 24-hour care to private accommodation without on-site support”.