Homelessness Supplement 2019
While progress is being made on the homelessness crisis, much more needs to be done, Greg Daly reports
Just over four years ago, Ireland seemed to reach a watershed moment in its attitude to homelessness, as the death of Jonathan Corrie just metres away from Leinster House shocked the nation. Despite this, the country’s homelessness crisis seems to be getting worse and worse.
Mike Allen, Advocacy Manager for Focus Ireland, says the situation is somewhat more complicated than that.
“It depends on how you want to measure it or look at it,” he tells The Irish Catholic. “In terms of the number of people who are experiencing homelessness and how long they’re experiencing it for, it is much worse now than it was four years ago.
“The statistics are on the Focus Ireland website and they’re very, very clear,” he continues. “They’ve doubled and doubled again with the numbers of individuals and families and children who are all experiencing homelessness. So at that level, which is the most human and important level, it is far, far worse than it was before.”
There has, however, been progress in some respects, he points out.
“You’ve got to counterbalance that with how the solutions to the problem are now much more advanced than they were four years ago. So, four years ago there was virtually nothing being built, but not only that, the various State and private organisations which build housing – local authorities and developers and whatever – were on their knees. They didn’t have staff, they didn’t have capacity, they didn’t have access to money, they were still really decimated from the Crash,” he says.
“Now there is considerably more capacity, there’s more housing getting planning permissions, things are in the pipeline for delivery, so in some sense there’s that balance between how the human scale is worse, but the cavalry are closer to coming over the hill, for want of a better metaphor.”
While adamant that a solution is closer now than it was when Jonathan Corrie died, Mr Allen cautions that there should be no false optimism around this, explaining that the numbers of new homes being built is far below what it needs to be if the problem is to be solved.
The problem, in the meantime, is continuing to grow, with homeless figures continuing to rise, even if they have not yet crossed the symbolic 10,000 mark.
“They changed the definition of what was to be counted as homeless,” he says. “If they had kept the same definition it would probably be up to over 11,000 but they changed the definition…”
One of the real dangers around the crisis, he acknowledges, is that people simply move beyond shock and horror, beginning to accept it and think of it as normal.
“That happened with the unemployment crisis, that happened with the trolley crisis, and so on: it’s the nature of news and media and humanity that people become used to things,” he says, adding that this issue may be different.
“I think there’s a very high intolerance in Ireland around homelessness. There’s a particular attachment to home, and a particular rejection to the idea that thousands of people could be without a home,” he says.
“The other factor is that it’s not just a homeless crisis – there’d be more risk of people just walking on by if the problem was confined to a particular group of people,” he adds.
“The reality is that what we see as a homeless crisis is exactly the same set of factors which is pushing rents up for ordinary working people, that means that lots of parents have their kids coming back to live in the family home, that people in their family home can’t afford to buy their own home, companies can’t recruit the staff that they need because of rent and housing in Dublin. All these things are all interwoven, and people recognise that homelessness isn’t just a thing over there.”
In short, he says, the issue is a broader housing crisis, with homelessness being the tip of the iceberg. “I think there’s a wide recognition of that, and there isn’t a sense that it’s something that happens to other people. It’s affecting us all, and the solutions that will help homelessness will also help the people who are paying massively excessive rents or can’t get suitable accommodation,” he says.
The key to addressing this is, quite simply, increasing the housing supply, he stresses, while pointing out that this isn’t enough.
“Very little else works without that,” he says. “It’s necessary but not sufficient.”
For tackling long term homelessness, the expansion of the Housing First programme across Ireland to such cities as Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford has made a real difference, he says.
“The traditional approach was you provided somebody with shelter, and then while they were living in that shelter you’d try to help them to deal with whatever problems have caused their homelessness,” he says, adding that for long-term homeless people these problems would typically involve mental health or addiction issues.
“The traditional approach was let’s get them off the drugs, let’s get their mental health sorted out, and if they do that we can put them in transitional housing, and if they settle in there then we give them temporary housing and if they’re very good we’ll give them a house,” he says, adding that this is known as a ‘Staircase’ approach.
“The Housing First approach turns that on its head, and says a person with mental health or addiction issues is much more likely to be able to tackle those problems if they have their own home and can close their own front door and have their own privacy,” he says.
“So you provide the person with a home, and put very high levels of support around them in the home. With Housing First you have very high levels of mental health and tenancy sustainment supports around the person. There’d be substantial multi-disciplinary teams working in Housing First with mental health professionals, nurses, as well as tenancy sustainment and social workers and so on.”
Describing this as probably the most researched social policy intervention ever, with large amounts of data especially from Canada, he says that internationally it has around an 80% success rate. In contrast, he says, traditional staircase approaches tend to run at between 30 and 50%.
“In Dublin the Focus Ireland Housing First part of the programme we’ve been running for a number of years has been running at a 90% success rate,” he says. “It’s been working very well – about 200 people in Dublin have been housed through Housing First, and most of those people have been people who were not using shelters, who were very long-term rough sleepers sleeping on the streets, not engaging with homeless services.”
While the approach is intensive, cost-benefit studies on it in Canada and elsewhere have found that it’s not more expensive than traditional approaches.
“It’s extremely expensive to keep people homeless, in the sense of providing people with emergency accommodation, and the mental health and criminal justice issues that arise are very, very expensive,” he says. “Some studies have shown that it is a lot cheaper than traditional approaches, but I think that those are in particular cases. Our view is that it works out as being about the same cost as traditional approaches, but it works.”
Recent years has seen a lot of attention on family homelessness, and Mr Allen says that this continues to rise.
“About four years ago, there were about 300 families homeless when the homeless figures first came out, and now there’s over 2,000 families homeless, so it’s a massive, massive increase,” he says.
“Focus Ireland would be the main lead agency responding to that with the Homeless Executive, so practically how this works is that there’s a team called the Family Homeless Action Team, that comprises case managers for the family and child support workers,” he explains.
“Each case manager would be trying to provide support to about 20 families who are living in hotels or hubs or B&Bs or whatever,” he continues. “Their job would be to support that family to exit from homelessness, but also to support them to survive homelessness and deal with the issues, but all the survival work is directed towards getting the people out of it. We’re very much not interested in managing homelessness – we’re interested in ending it for the individuals in it,” he stresses.
Last year Focus helped over 1,000 families out of homelessness, but with about as many families becoming homeless over the year the figures haven’t improved. Meanwhile, Mr Allen says, about 10% of Ireland’s homeless families have been homeless for over two years, which takes a toll on the children.
“Typically the kind of problems were having is children reluctant to go to school not able to concentrate on their school work, doing less well at school, and for older children there is a risk of them dropping out of school,” he says.
With their families there are behavioural problems and difficulties with discipline, he continues.
“One of the things social workers talk about is parents being infantilised,” he says. “The role of the parent is about security and authority and a sense of order for the child, but in actual fact the parents are not able to provide the security and the child might often see the parent being told off by the person who’s running the B&B, or there are curfews for the parents or parents can’t bring their children into the kitchen.
“The way in which the parents’ authority are constantly undermined from every direction during their experience of homelessness, our child development people tell us, not unreasonably, has long-term environmental impacts on the children and the family,” he says.
“The question is whether in 30 years’ time the Taoiseach of the day will be standing up and issuing an apology for the way we treated homeless families in this period in the way we’ve seen for the Mother and Baby homes or industrial schools, and so on,” he observes.
In terms of going forward, and stressing that extra beds in emergency shelters are not merely an answer but may be deepening the general homelessness problem, Mr Allen reiterates the importance of increasing the housing supply.
“While very clear about the progress that’s been made in providing more housing, that really needs to be redoubled, because we need to deliver around 35,000 new homes every year to stand still,” he says.
“We probably only delivered around 18,000 last year, so we’re a long way even from standing still.”
Ordinary people have a key role to play in tackling this, it seems.
“That really needs to be accelerated, and that involves things like local communities, local politicians and so on not objecting to every development in the area that’s proposed, because there’s a real contradiction between the widespread desire for a public solution to the housing problem, and the localised resistance by local communities to every proposal to actually build homes,” he says.
“That has to change if we’re to deal with this problem,” he says.