We need to adjust our understanding of what it means today to be homeless
Opinion: Family homelessness is mostly a result of poor economic circumstances
It is 30 years since I carried out my first research project on homelessness in Dublin. After three decades it is hard to accept the reality that the situation is now worse.
When I started, people had a narrow view of homelessness: the perception was of a single older man, probably with an alcohol problem or mental health issues, living rough and visible on the streets.
Certainly the men struggling with a life on the streets existed then and they exist today. But it is not the typical experience of homelessness. As well as those sleeping rough, we have all kinds of people, including horrifying numbers of children, without a safe and secure place to call home in Dublin, and it is getting worse every day.
Focus Ireland’s latest figures show that 173 families lost the roof over their heads in Dublin in the first nine months of this year, double the number last year. These newly homeless families include 191 children. Broken down another way: five children are becoming homeless in Dublin every week. This is unacceptable.
Those of us on the front line are working hard to support those who have lost or are at risk of losing their home. We are increasingly concentrating on prevention as there has been a 43 per cent rise in the number of people our prevention services supported around the country since 2012.
Despite our efforts, the grim reality is the situation continues to deteriorate rapidly, and we all know why. There are all kinds of reasons why people become homeless, but severe economic pressure is the most obvious.
I am sure we all know people who have been badly affected by the recession: they have lost their jobs, their businesses, their pensions, their incomes, their homes.
Now imagine those problems multiplied through disadvantage, poor educational attainment, illness, debt, domestic upheaval and family breakdown
– and you can see that homelessness is almost inevitable for those at the bottom of the social pile.
The figures tell their own shocking story, but what is really distressing is the terrible stories I hear from people with young children who come into Focus Ireland every day looking for someone to listen to them, to tell them they matter, and to help them find, make and keep a home.
You won’t see these families camped out on the street. They are usually “housed” in emergency accommodation such as a “bed and breakfast”, so they do have a physical roof over their heads. So that’s all right, then?
No, it’s not. A B&B is fine for a few nights if you are on holiday, but it is no way for a family to live for months, even years, on end. Imagine not being able to cook a meal for your children, maybe not even being able to heat a bottle for a baby. Imagine having to leave your accommodation in the morning and spend the day trudging around with your children until you can get back in at nightfall. Imagine getting your children out to school in the morning and not having anywhere for them to do their homework when the school day is over. How can you bring children up properly in such an unstable situation?
That is what life is like for many homeless families, and the “temporary” solution can go on and on, because there simply is nowhere else. We have no housing stock to move people into.
We stopped building social housing years ago, and instead the State has been paying private landlords to supply accommodation for people in need.
This practice is fraught with difficulties. One serious problem is that State-subsidised rents are still set too low to be attractive to landlords, and the result is that people already in financial distress are having to top up their rent allowance to meet the rent. But they can’t keep this up, they run into difficulties, and they lose their homes.
Meanwhile, thousands of social houses that could be transferred into the hands of housing associations are unoccupied as they require repairs or upgrading and this work has yet to be carried out. The turnaround time for empty local authority housing such as this is unacceptably slow, especially when housing is so urgently needed.
Similarly, properties that the National Asset Management Agency is willing to release to meet housing needs cannot yet be integrated into the system, also for bureaucratic reasons. The Government has to move to unblock the blockages and get people housed.
Minister of State for Housing Jan O’Sullivan and her department have been working hard to develop a policy that places housing first, as the most effective response to tackling homelessness. Prevention is better than cure, though, and the Government has to accept that this is not a crisis that can be tackled in isolation.
Family homelessness is mostly a result of tough economic circumstances, which in turn are the result of unemployment, cuts in areas such as health and education, and Government “austerity” policies.
Introducing cuts in one policy area without looking at the wider impact has left our poorest people paying the highest of prices – the price of their family home.
Politicians have a duty to re-examine their approach. Giving priority to blindly balancing the books without looking at the wider impact has not worked and will not work. We need a system that places the needs of people first and adopts a compassionate approach to those in the greatest need. In 2014 the Government must recommit itself to promises made to end homelessness by 2016.
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy is founder and life president of Focus Ireland
People worried about their housing situation or others who want to donate can contact Focus Ireland at 1850-204205 or go to focusireland.ie