The shortage of housing and the homelessness crisis to which it contributes are among the State’s biggest challenges. Despite the Government’s focus on the dual problems since it took office a year ago, there is little evidence of real progress. The crisis is a hangover from the financial crash and the human suffering it has wrought demands a more effective response from the Government and from society at large.
A special report by Simon Carswell in today's Irish Times into the scale of the problem in Dún Laoghaire illustrates in microcosm how complex and intractable the situation is. Likewise, a legal action this week on behalf of a family of seven who are living in a hotel provided vivid evidence of the impact on them. Unless there is immediate progress, the next big squeeze on the State's finances, arising from Brexit, could make high levels of homelessness a permanent feature of Irish life.
Official figures show there were 7,472 homeless people at the end of March, one-third of them children. This represented an increase of almost 1,500 over the previous year. In spite of Minister for Housing Simon Coveney’s efforts, the figures indicate the problem is actually getting worse. The Minister has pointed to the positive side of the statistics which show that more people exited homelessness in 2016 than in 2015. But if the number becoming homeless is growing, then surely something more is needed.
A range of initiatives like the Homeless Housing Assistance Payment scheme across the four local authorities in Dublin have helped some people to make the transition from emergency accommodation to private rented tenancies. But it is a case of just scratching the surface.
It is frustrating that in parallel with the shortage of new homes, there are 200,000 vacant houses. Peter McVerry Trust CEO Pat Doyle has pointed out that Dublin alone has more than 33,000 empty homes. Given that the capital is estimated to need 46,000 additional housing units in the short term, finding a way to put these to use would offer some relief. There are complex reasons for the high vacancy rate. One is an unintended consequence of the Fair Deal system which incentivises older people to leave their houses empty when they have to move into a nursing home.
Coveney announced the allocation yesterday of €24 million to restore 1,400 vacant local authority properties to productive use this year. It is a positive step. But the cumulative impact of the measures introduced to date is not sufficient.
This crisis demands a joined-up response across all agencies. It is unacceptable that children are growing up without a home or condemned to a twilight existence in hotel bedrooms. The issue is often portrayed as a test of Fine Gael leadership contender Coveney. But it is much more: it is a test of the Government and a measure of what society is willing to tolerate.