A Rising Tide - but no boats to lift
Much has been written over the years about the problem of homelessness. The causes of homelessness have been analysed and solutions proposed. Working Notes has included articles on the issue of homelessness in the recent past. In this article, I do not wish to repeat what has already been written but to look at the effects of the last five years of economic prosperity on the numbers of homeless people and on their prospects of escaping from homelessness in the future.
One would imagine that the past five years would have improved the lot of homeless people, as the budget surpluses grew so large that we didn’t know how to spend them. One would imagine that the past five years would have reduced the numbers of homeless to an insignificant minority, most of whom would be just too difficult to help.
In reality, however, I have never known so many people who are homeless and desperate, in the 25 years in which I have been working with young homeless people. There is a crisis of homelessness, which is not being acknowledged, let alone addressed. Every night, an increasing number of people are being told that there is no room in any of the hostels and they are being forced to sleep rough. Those living in hostels are less and less likely to find permanent accommodation.
It is estimated that the number of adult homeless people has almost doubled in the past five years. Some months ago, a count of homeless people was taken but the results of that count are not yet available. It is, of course, very difficult to count all those who are homeless as many people who sleep rough like to be invisible, for safety reasons. However, while previous counts have been notoriously unreliable (one Local Authority reported no homeless people in their area despite the fact that there was a hostel for homeless people in their area and it was always full!), this year’s count has been much more professionally carried out and should give a fairly accurate estimate of the numbers.
Why, after 5 years of economic prosperity, has the problem of homelessness become so critical?
Ironically, the problem of homelessness has increased because of the economic prosperity we have enjoyed. Three factors have played their part in this increase:
- A large number of people have come to Ireland, or returned to Ireland, to seek employment. They are taking advantage of the economic growth that we have experienced but they are either unable or unwilling to purchase accommodation. They are seeking private rented accommodation, which was previously the most available option to homeless people. Homeless people have been squeezed out.
- Because of our prosperity, the cost of housing has soared out of control. This affects the rents and deposits being charged in the private rented sector. A bedsit, which five years ago might have cost £30 to rent, is now costing €100 or even more. The deposit, normally equivalent to four weeks rent in advance, has also soared from perhaps £120 to €400. Even with the subsidy from the Health Board towards the cost of accommodation, these prices are out of range of many homeless people.
- Again, the soaring cost of housing has made it impossible for many couples to afford a mortgage. Instead of living in private rented accommodation for several years while they saved the deposit for a house, they are now living for much longer in private rented accommodation and some are resigned to living there permanently. Again, this has reduced the amount of private rented accommodation available to homeless people.
It needs to be said here that the housing crisis for homeless people has not been caused by the influx of asylum-seekers in recent years. The perception exists amongst homeless people that asylum seekers are the cause of their homelessness. This was exacerbated in the early years of growth of asylum seekers as they went to the same social welfare office as homeless people to seek accommodation and welfare. Thus they were seen to be in competition for private rented accommodation. Furthermore, because so many could not speak much English, they took a lot more time to conduct their business with the welfare officer, leading to growing queues of homeless people behind them who were getting more and more frustrated. This has created considerable racism amongst homeless people which is now difficult to eradicate. Most asylum seekers are in fact placed in specially selected accommodation, which would not be available to homeless people even if the asylum seekers were to disappear. However, it does show that if the political will to find accommodation is there, the problem of large numbers of people seeking accommodation can be solved.
Hence a situation has arisen where, each year, more people become newly homeless and join the back of the queue, while very few homeless people at the top of the queue are able to leave. Hostels, which a few years ago were relatively easy to access, are now packed, with waiting lists. One hostel was so overwhelmed by the demand that for a time they asked people to phone at 4.30pm to book a bed – if they phoned at 4.35pm, all the beds were gone!
What are the options open to homeless people?
Homeless people, who wish to exit from homelessness, have, in theory, three options:
1. The private rented sector: This has traditionally been the easiest route out of homelessness. Save up the deposit or get a friendly priest to lend it to them (knowing that he was not going to get it back again!) and they were no longer homeless. This worked for many who did not have serious personal problems such as alcohol or drug addiction or behaviour problems. Even the lack of security of tenure (the landlord has only to give one month’s notice to quit, no reason is needed) was only an inconvenience, as another private rented flat was easily obtained, using the deposit which the previous landlord had returned.
However, for the reasons given above, this situation has now totally changed. It is almost impossible to access the private rented sector and those few who succeed live with the constant dread of being given a month’s notice to quit, aware that in that case their chances of finding another flat are almost nil and they will have to return to homelessness.
2. The Local Authority: The City or County Council is responsible for the accommodation of adults who have no way of securing their own accommodation. However, the waiting lists in every Local Authority area are so large that they simply are unable to cope. Homeless people, particularly single homeless people, are very low on the priority list. The number of homeless people being provided with accommodation, particularly in Dublin and other large urban areas where the problem is most acute, is extremely low and makes little impact on the numbers of homeless.
3. Voluntary Housing Associations: In Britain, voluntary housing associations have been a very important exit from homelessness for many living in hostels and on the street. However, in Ireland, they are a relatively insignificant sector. Most voluntary housing associations provide accommodation for people with special needs, such as the elderly or those with disabilities. Few provide for homeless people. Agencies, such as Focus Ireland, have made an important contribution. But their waiting lists are enormous and their transitional housing projects (where people stay for a limited period of time and learn the skills needed to live independently) have, like others, great difficulty in moving people on to permanent accommodation when their time in the transitional programme is completed.
Homelessness and Housing Policy:
Homelessness is not a problem that exists in isolation nor can it be solved in isolation. It is integrally connected with other housing issues. While the Local Authorities have the primary responsibility for the problem of homelessness, they are all in crisis with long waiting lists. Every house or flat given to a single homeless person means a family with children must wait longer in a B & B or in overcrowded accommodation which they share with relatives. While the number of new houses available to Local Authorities has increased by 12,000 since 1999, the number of households on their waiting lists has increased by 15,000 over the same period. They cannot even keep up with the new entrants. The Government target of 25,000 new social housing units over the lifetime of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness will, again, not keep up with the numbers of new households seeking such accommodation. There were, in November 2001, 54,000 households waiting for accommodation, the equivalent of 140,000 people. In the last two years there has been an overall 35% increase in those numbers. Cork has had a 44% increase in waiting lists since 2000, Galway a 76% increase, Waterford a 118% increase.
Ultimately, the only solution to homelessness is to substantially increase the number of housing units available to those seeking accommodation, whether homeless or not, particularly those under the control of the Local Authorities. We cannot solve the problem of homelessness without solving the problem of housing waiting lists. However, if in the five years of prosperity, we have not managed to keep the waiting lists from increasing, there is no chance of decreasing them now that cut-backs (or adjustments!) are planned.
The other element to the solution of homelessness is to substantially invest in and encourage Housing Associations, who would buy, renovate or build accommodation for those who are homeless. Again, this would provide extra accommodation which is the core of the solution.
A legal approach:
While most of us cannot imagine life without a place to come back to and relax in, a place to make a cup of tea, a bed to sleep in, there is no right in law to such a basic need. Although the Government signed the now 10-year old UN Convention on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, which includes the right to housing, it has consistently failed to implement it. Legislation to enshrine the right to housing would make a substantial difference to homeless people, although experience warns us that legislation, without adequate resources to implement it, is in itself no guarantee that the rights it gives will in fact be provided. The High Court is filled most days with homeless children, who have a right in law to accommodation under the Child Care Act 1991, but who are not receiving it.
On the positive side:
1. The most significant advance has been the establishment of the Homeless Agency (formerly the Homeless Initiative).
The Homeless Agency was established to coordinate the work of all the statutory and voluntary agencies working with homeless people and to improve the quality of the services available to them. It is accountable jointly to Dublin City Council and the Eastern Regional Health Authority. Its establishment gave rise to great hope that the problem of homelessness might be, at last, tackled in a meaningful way. After a lot of consultation and reflection, this agency has produced a detailed, comprehensive plan for the eradication of homelessness over a period of ten years. It requires a substantial investment in services for people who are homeless, and the allocation by the Local Authorities of a substantial number of housing units each year specifically for homeless people. The first three-year module of this plan is now at its mid-term stage but many of its proposals, particularly those which relate to the provision of accommodation (and which therefore require significant resources), are significantly behind schedule. However, the Homeless Agency is hopeful that at the end of the three-year plan many of its targets may yet be achieved.
2. A major problem which has arisen particularly in the last few years has been the large number of prisoners who are released at the end of their sentence but have nowhere to go. It is the most serious obstacle to the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners that now exists. To address this problem, a multi-agency team, from the Probation and Welfare Service, the Irish Prison Service and Dublin City Council, has been established, called the “Homeless Offenders Strategy Team” (HOST). Again, it is hoped that HOST will provide extra accommodation but without concentrating ex-prisoners in specific buildings which would generate a stigma and create opposition within the local community.
3. For homeless people with special needs, a project providing long-term housing for committed street drinkers is expected to open in Dublin by the end of 2003. Some homeless people, (those we are more likely to notice on the streets), have an alcohol problem and are barred from all hostels if they turn up with drink taken – which they usually do! Many cities in Europe have a “wet house” where such drinkers can be given accommodation for the night and medical attention, if necessary. Such a service is badly needed in Dublin and its proposed opening is very welcome.
4. Focus Ireland and the Society of the St. Vincent de Paul are hoping to open a “crash pad” for young rough sleepers by the end of 2002. Some young homeless people are barred from traditional hostels, which seek to provide a safe and supportive environment for the young people living there. The needs of this small group are very different to the needs of mainstream homeless young people. They find it difficult to cope with the structured environment of a hostel, as they may have been allowed to run wild at home or have spent a long time on the streets. A “crash pad”, which provides a bed at night, with few other demands, will provide a valuable service and may help some of them to move on, over time, to a more stable lifestyle.
5. The Homeless Agency has invited tenders for a 24-hour high-support accommodation-based service for families with multiple needs, to be funded by the Health Board. Sometimes families, who have been provided with accommodation, are unable to maintain it, as they need a level of support which is simply not available to them. This service will cater for families who would otherwise remain homeless for long periods of time or who are evicted, again and again, from accommodation which is offered to them, due to their inability to maintain a reasonably stable lifestyle without support.
Homelessness has always been with us. However, during the past five years, while political eyes have been focused on the economic growth that has been taking place, the problem of homelessness has been rapidly increasing behind their backs, unnoticed, unattended. It is a direct, but unintended, consequence of that economic growth and reminds us once again, that a rising tide does not lift all boats, indeed sometimes it may sink them.