End to homelessness by 2016?

An initiative piloted in the US could be the key to Ireland’s goal of ending long-term homelessness by 2016, writes Brian O’Connell


Last February, Minister of State Jan O’Sullivan reiterated Government plans to end long-term homelessness in Ireland by 2016. In outlining how Government policy would help achieve this, O’Sullivan said the focus would be on housing-led philosophies – giving people long-term, stable housing options as early as possible and moving away from past models of passing homeless people through various stages before eventually securing permanent housing for them.

Agencies for homeless people and those working at the frontline of homelessness in Ireland have already taken on this model. Added focus is now being brought to the issue with attempts to adopt a US programme entitled Community Solutions, which aspires to house 100,000 vulnerable and chronically homeless persons across 150 communities in that country by July 2014.

The national movement works with local agencies and individuals in a number of ways to impact on long-term homelessness. Firstly, the organisation asks communities to identify every homeless person in their area by name, and to obtain a set of data from them that in turn allows the agencies to establish accurately their precise needs. All local agencies are then asked to house at least 2.5 per cent of their chronic homeless population each month, which would mean an end to homelessness in four years’ time. And finally, greater communication and pooling of knowledge is applied between existing agencies and services, so that systems used to house homeless people are made more efficient, and local teams are given clear goals and methods of working together.

Helen McGuire, project manager for Community Solutions in Ireland, is currently liaising with all key stakeholders working in the area of homelessness here and hopes they will be able to put into practice some of the measures that have worked in the US. A seminar is planned for Dublin next year, which would introduce experts from Community Solutions in the US to some of those agencies dealing with the issue of homelessness in Ireland. Currently, the work in adapting aspects of Community Solutions in Ireland is focused on Dublin, where the majority of long-term homeless persons here are located, but efforts are underway to enable agencies learn from projects that have been successful in other Irish cities.

“We are encouraging a lot of people working in this area to mobilise around the Community Solutions concept,” says McGuire. “That is a challenge. We are committed to the goal of ending long-term homelessness by 2016, and we want to look at how different cities are doing that. In one year’s time, we hope to have less people on the streets of Dublin and to be working closely with Government to have less people on our streets nationally.”

In the US, Community Solutions has just passed the 50,000 mark, halfway towards its target of housing 100,000 long-term homeless people by July 2014. The plan has worked by connecting different agencies to one another so that where certain interventions work, they can then be adopted and implemented quickly in other areas.

Jake Maguire, director of campaign communications with Community Solutions, says enabling agencies to react quickly to evolving situations on the ground is one of the key aims of the project. “What we are trying to do is create a network where communities who have solved problems can share those solutions. If someone comes up with an innovative idea that is having an impact, we shouldn’t have to wait 10 years for a research paper to tell us it works.”

Supportive housing
The system in the US also allows people to move from homelessness to stable and permanent housing in less than three months, meaning chronic homeless people are less likely to be bounced from service provider to service provider, and far more likely to have their housing needs dealt with as a priority. The experience in the US is that the programme has not needed additional financial resources to implement it – just

a better use of existing ones.

“What we advocate is permanent supportive housing, where you can stay as long as you want,” Maguire says. “Sometimes, the supports needed might be very light, such as help making a grocery list, or simply providing weekly company for someone.

Other times it may involve medical care or treatment for mental health issues. Our philosophy is to move someone into housing first. When we did that, and then offered them supports, we found 85 per cent of persons stay in housing and away from homelessness.”

The Community Solutions programme works particularly well in helping people who are homeless who don’t engage with existing services for fear of being passed from agency to agency. The key is in getting all agencies to buy into new ways of working and sharing their work.

Existing resources are streamlined, so that each homeless person receives just the specific resources their particular case needs, and, at a time when agencies are under funding pressures, the programme can actually result in cost savings for the agencies on the ground.

The hope then is that by the end of 2014, the Community Solutions model will have been a success in Dublin and then later be adapted nationally. This could go a long way towards enabling Ireland’s aim to end homelessness by the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.