Homelessness policy based on shelter alone will not suffice

Jonathan Corrie’s needs were complex given his addiction and mental health

  Head of advocacy with Focus Ireland Mike Allen says what is needed now is a “persistent response not a panic response”.  Photograph: Eric Luke

Head of advocacy with Focus Ireland Mike Allen says what is needed now is a “persistent response not a panic response”. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

When the results of the annual “winter rough sleeper count”were published, two weeks ago, there was barely a political murmur in response. Conducted on November 11th, the count found 168 people sleeping out – the highest number since records began in 2007.

Jonathan Corrie (43), who died this week in a Dublin doorway, was almost certainly among those 168 people. He was almost certainly passed by politicians and advisers the following morning, as he slept in a Molesworth Street doorway and they made their way to Leinster House.

That a relatively young man could die in such circumstances has been called a “national disgrace”. There has been a candle-lit vigil, a round of summits, forums and emergency debates.

Today Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly will chair an all-day summit on homelessness. Tomorrow, Lord Mayor of Dublin Christy Burke will hold his own summit on the subject.

Commitment

Chief executive of Dublin Simon Sam McGuinness says that although things have never been as bad, there has never been such concerted commitment to do something about it. “This is positive, but something has to come out of all this. There aren’t enough emergency beds in Dublin.

“People have given up calling the emergency number because they are told night after night there’s no room. What happened a few nights ago to Mr Corrie, could happen to someone else tonight.”

Up to 40 more emergency beds are to be made available by Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust on Monday, while the Dublin Region Homeless Executive promises a further 86 by the end of the month. These had been planned anyway.

The concern among some is that the response may simply be to provide more emergency beds. A policy based on shelter alone will not suffice. What is needed now, says Mike Allen, head of advocacy with Focus Ireland, is a “persistent response, not a panic response”.

Complex case

Take Mr Corrie as an example. His needs were complex. He had addiction issues. More recently his mental and physical health had deteriorated to a point where, it appears, he had not the wherewithal to take up offers of emergency accommodation.

Addressing his needs would have been difficult, but not impossible. It is telling that in a recent interview he said homelessness had “become a way of life”. He would, however, have liked a bedsit of his own “but it just doesn’t happen”. He needed more than an emergency bed to leave the streets and perhaps an offer of more long-term housing would have persuaded him to engage. Or perhaps it would not.

At the same time, making more emergency beds available will do nothing to stop the flow of people into homelessness.

If the Government is serious about stemming that flow, legislative, policy and cultural changes are needed.

Intervention is necessary to address escalating rents in Dublin. There have been calls to deepen tenants’ rights, by lengthening the notice period landlords must give when increasing rents, from one month to three, and when giving notice to quit.

Widespread calls to increase rent supplement caps are growing louder. Hospitals and prisons must stop discharging people into homelessness, and must start working with local authorities on this. Young people leaving care must have a plan in place that includes long-term accommodation.

Such measures could help. Whether they would have been sufficient to help Mr Corrie will remain unknown.