A year after the death of Jonathan Corrie the homelessness crisis is now an emergency

If Rent supplement is not increased to reflect the 30% rises that have already hit them another 100 or more families will face homelessness this Christmas

A man lights a candlelight last December outside at the doorway in Molesworth street where John Corrie who was homeless was found dead. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

A man lights a candlelight last December outside at the doorway in Molesworth street where John Corrie who was homeless was found dead. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

Christmas is a hard time of year for everyone who has lost loved ones. As we reach the first anniversary of Jonathan Corrie’s death on the street in front of the Dáil, there will be much renewed debate on homelessness and what has changed since. At this time it is important for all to remember his family and to respect their privacy and grief.

After Jonathan’s tragic death there was public outcry, and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly brought everyone together to ensure nobody had to sleep rough due to lack of a bed. We were assured homelessness was top of the Government agenda. However, in the past year the homeless crisis has deepened.

Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust jointly run Dublin’s Housing First Intake Team on behalf of the Dublin local authorities. Our staff are out on the street every night and know that, despite all the initiatives, the Government has failed to halt the deepening of the homeless crisis.

The number of homeless families and children has doubled to a September total of almost 800 families and more than 1,500 children. The number of single people has also risen.

Meanwhile, we are back to 100 people sleeping rough in Dublin each night. Worryingly, rough sleeping is rising in Cork, Limerick and Galway.

So why has a crisis become an emergency?

When most people think of homelessness they think of a man in a sleeping bag in a shop doorway. This is the most visible and tragic manifestation of homelessness. People in this situation usually have complex needs such as mental health problems or addiction. Many grew up in State care and left at 18 without any support. People in these situations often need intensive support.

The Focus Ireland-Peter McVerry Trust Housing First Intake team grew out of the partnership between the two organisations, and last October was contracted by the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive.

The service assists people who are sleeping rough to secure emergency accommodation or, if there is no accommodation available, provides them with sleeping bags – so far this year it has helped more than 1,500 people find a bed and handed out 770 sleeping bags.

This is an essential service, but it does not solve the problem. What makes the Intake Team unique is that it uses the Housing First approach to support people who have been sleeping rough for many years to move into their own home, and provides intensive support to help them stay there.

This approach works. In the year since it was established, with the help of the local authorities’ housing sections, the team has supported 24 people so that they now have their own key to their own door, and pay their own rent. Many of these people had slept rough for more than a decade. There are more than 20 more people who are waiting to take this step, if there were apartments available.

Family homelessness

Alan Kelly’s two-year rent freeze may slow the rent spiral, but thousands of families are still burdened with the massive rent rises of the past two years. If rent supplement is not increased to reflect the 30 per cent rises that have already hit them, they will continue to lose their homes.

This is a key point. While it takes time to provide new homes for people who have lost their homes, there is no such “supply issue” for families who are still in their home and hanging on by their fingernails. The Government has responded on a “case-by-case” basis but the fact that the figures keep on rising is proof that not enough is being done to support families to hold on to their existing homes. Increasing rent supplement to realistic levels is entirely within the Government’s power. If it does not act, another 100 or more families will face homelessness this Christmas.

Focus Ireland has been designated as the Homeless Action Team for families in Dublin, and the Peter McVerry Trust has recently opened new accommodation to assist families. But both organisations are restricted in what we can do by the shortage of affordable accommodation for these families to rent.

Delivering homes to end the homeless emergency Both our organisations support the Government social housing strategy and Alan Kelly has made clear his commitment to increase the supply of social housing, but there are now indications that the

Government will fall up to 1,000 units short of this year’s target.

One of the most serious barriers the Government faces is that the housing arm of the State has become paralysed due to years of inactivity – local authorities and Approve Housing Bodies need time to rebuild their capacity after years of cutting back on key staff.

But at the same time another arm of the State, Nama – which has the land and the capacity to deliver up to 20,000 new houses – is going to build those homes for the private market.

There is, of course, a need for new private homes. But at a time when there is a desperate need for good quality social housing, it is extraordinary that the State is building private homes while many private developers are inactive, simply sitting on zoned land.

There has been consensus for more than a year that the homeless crisis cannot be tackled without the delivery of homes, but consensus without action achieves nothing. If the Government is genuinely serious it should direct Nama to deliver its 20,000 homes as social housing – and finally deliver its promised “social dividend”.

Ashley Balbirnie is chief executive of Focus Ireland. Pat Doyle is chief executive of the Peter McVerry Trust

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