Sr Stan: Housing charities not part of homelessness problem
Legislation is needed on several fronts if homelessness is to be tackled effectively
A homeless person takes shelter at the Four Courts in Dublin. More than 5,000 people in the State are using hostels or sleeping rough. Photograph: Collins
When I started working in the area of homelessness in the mid-1980s, I thought we could solve homelessness within 10 years by housing all the long-term homeless people and preventing newly homeless people from falling into long-term homelessness. And I was not far wrong: if government had continued to provide social housing as they had done in the past, then it would have been quite feasible.
But as we all now know, to our horror and shame, that is not what happened. Instead, successive governments made a conscious decision to move away from providing housing for people who could not afford to house themselves, and we saw a sharp decline in social housing. We went from a situation where up to a third of houses in the country were provided by local authorities in the 1970s to a figure of 6.6 per cent in the early years of this century – in spite of constantly increasing demand. The private sector was supposed to step into the breach – with the results we now see daily on our streets and nightly on our television screens.
Contrary to popular opinion, organisations working on behalf of homeless people in Ireland are not an incoherent bunch of competing bodies
We have almost 100,000 households on housing lists, an increase of 9 per cent or almost 8,000 households since last year. There are almost 1,500 families in hotels and B&Bs, including more than 3,000 children. And on top of that, we have more than 5,000 people using hostels or afraid to use hostels and sleeping rough. Homelessness is rapidly increasing, and people who should have been only briefly homeless because of a sudden crisis are getting trapped in a cycle of long-term homelessness.
As the largest voluntary group serving the needs of homeless people in Ireland, Focus Ireland continues to believe that what homeless people need is not emergency accommodation but a home. Our recent initiative, Housing First (inspired by a project of the same name based in New York), has been successfully housing and supporting homeless people in their new homes for the past four years.
Our experience with Housing First is totally at odds with the current media narrative on homelessness. Contrary to popular opinion, organisations working on behalf of homeless people in Ireland are not an incoherent bunch of competing bodies; rather we work co-operatively to achieve shared goals.
Focus Ireland, for example, works in partnership with the Peter McVerry Trust and the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (under the auspices of Dublin City Council) in Dublin Housing First, which has provided more than 130 tenancies for people who were habitually sleeping rough, many of them for more than a decade.
That is another myth Housing First has exposed: yes, many people who have been sleeping rough long-term may live chaotic lives and have complex problems that go beyond housing; but if they get a place to live they can very often, with support, sustain their tenancies and deal with their other issues. The clue is in the name: instead of expecting people to be sober and drug-free, for example, before offering them a place to live, Housing First houses people first, and then surrounds them with supports to help them to deal with their other problems.
And it works. Housing First has had very high success rates, of 85-90 per cent, and has a proven positive effect on physical and mental health. We know people who have been able to re-establish broken relationships with their families as a result of being housed through the Housing First programme – for example, a man who had slept rough for years was able to invite his parents to Christmas dinner in his own apartment. We also know people who have been able to return to work or education after being housed.
In Limerick the Housing First for Youth partnership with Tusla and Limerick County Council has delivered more than 60 homes for young people in the midwest. In addition to the Housing First initiative, the Focus Ireland family team funded by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and Focus Ireland has supported more than 300 families to move out of homelessness already this year. In fact, we are supporting more people out of homelessness than ever before, at least one family a day. However, our successes are constantly undermined by the constantly rising tide of two to three new families becoming homeless every day.
The largest single precipitating cause of homelessness now is eviction by landlords who want to sell their properties or move relatives in. Unless there is legislation to prevent landlords from forcing tenants out, homelessness is going to continue to rise.
The Government is finally starting to recognise that non-provision of social housing by local authorities over decades is at the root of our homelessness emergency, and building programmes have started – but excruciatingly slowly.
Meanwhile, local authorities are sitting on 1,200 hectares of zoned and serviced land, which could support almost 38,000 homes – and almost nothing is being done to make this happen. Nor is there much sign of vacant property being refurbished and made available.
The homeless charities are not the problem. We are providing solutions every week of the year
We need a variety of measures to meet the housing needs of our homeless population, and all these measures require legislation. We need legislation to secure the rights of tenants; legislation to remove the barriers that prevent local authority land from being developed for housing; and legislation to make it possible to reclaim and refurbish empty, abandoned or derelict buildings for people in need of homes; but legislation is not being passed.
The homeless charities are not the problem. We are providing solutions every week of the year. We have workable solutions to homelessness but they can work effectively only if government provides the legislative framework and puts in place processes to exponentially speed up building programmes. Until this happens, organisations such as Focus Ireland, with vast experience of helping people out of homelessness, will continue to be running frantically only to stand still.
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy is founder and life president of Focus Ireland