Sunday 25 September 2016

Despite all the promises, the homeless crisis has deepened since Jonathan's tragic death

Ashley Balbirnie

Published 01/12/2015 | 02:30

The most significant change in the face of homelessness in recent years has been the number of families losing their homes
The most significant change in the face of homelessness in recent years has been the number of families losing their homes

Christmas is a hard time of year for anyone who has lost a loved one. On the first anniversary of Jonathan Corrie's death - in a doorway near Leinster House - there will be much renewed debate on homelessness and what has changed since. At this time, it is important to remember his family and respect their privacy and grief.

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After Jonathan's tragic death, there was public outcry and Environment Minister Alan Kelly said homelessness would be top of the Government agenda. However, in the past year, the homeless crisis has deepened.

Focus Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust jointly run Dublin's Housing First Intake Team on behalf of the Dublin local authorities. Our staff are out on the street every night and know at first hand that, despite all the initiatives and hard work, the Government has failed to halt the deepening crisis.

The number of families and children who have been made homeless rose to a September total of almost 800 families and over 1,500 children. The number of single people who are now homeless has also risen. Meanwhile, some 100 people are sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin each night. Worryingly, sleeping rough is rising in Cork, Limerick and Galway.

People become homeless for a variety of different reasons. There are those with more complex needs, in contrast to families who may have found themselves homeless because of spiralling rents. But the one thing that they all have in common is the need for affordable, secure homes.

When most people think of homelessness, they think of a man in a sleeping bag in a shop doorway. This is the most visible and tragic manifestation of homelessness. People in this situation usually suffer from mental health issues or addiction. Many grew up in State care and left at 18 without any support. People in these situations often need intensive support.

The Focus Ireland/Peter McVerry Trust Housing First Intake team grew out of the partnership between the two organisations, and last October was contracted by the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive.

The service assists people who are sleeping rough to secure emergency accommodation, or if there is no accommodation available provides them with sleeping bags. So far this year it has helped over 1,500 individuals find a bed and handed out 770 sleeping bags. This is an essential service, but it does not solve the problem. What makes the Intake Team unique is that it uses the Housing First approach to support people who have been sleeping rough for many years to move into their own home, and provides intensive support to help them stay there.

This approach works.

In the year since it was established, with the help of the local authority housing sections, the team has helped 24 people get their own keys to their own doors and pay their own rent. Many of these people had slept rough for over a decade.

The most significant change in the face of homelessness in recent years has been the number of families losing their homes.

An average of 70 to 80 families lose their homes every month in Dublin alone, and the key reason is they can't afford the rent increases.

Mr Kelly's two-year rent freeze may slow the rent spiral, but thousands of families are still burdened with the massive rent rises of the last two years.

If rent supplement is not increased to reflect the 30pc rise that has already hit tenants, they will continue to lose their homes.

This is a key point. While it takes time to provide new homes for people who have lost them, there is no such 'supply issue' for families who are still in their home and hanging on by their fingernails.

The Government has responded on a 'case-by-case' basis, but the fact that the figures keep on rising is proof that not enough is being done to help families to hold onto their existing homes. Increasing the rent supplement to realistic levels is entirely within the Government's power.

If it does not act, another 100 or more families will face homelessness this Christmas.

Focus Ireland has been designated as the Homeless Action Team for families in Dublin and the Peter McVerry Trust has recently opened new accommodation to assist families.

But both organisations are restricted in what they can do by the shortage of affordable accommodation.

Both our organisations support the Government social housing strategy and Mr Kelly has made clear his commitment to increasing the supply of social housing.

But there are now indications that the Government will fall short of this year's social housing target by up to 1,000 units.

One of the most serious barriers the Government faces is that the housing arm of the State has become paralysed due to years of inactivity - local authorities and approved housing bodies need time to rebuild their capacity after years of cutting back on key staff.

But at the same time, another arm of the State, Nama, - which has the land and the capacity to deliver up to 20,000 new houses - is going to build homes for the private market.

There is, of course, a need for new private homes. But at a time when there is a desperate need for good quality social housing, it is extraordinary that the State is building private homes while many private developers are inactive, simply sitting on zoned land.

There has been consensus for more than a year that the homeless crisis cannot be tackled without the delivery of homes, but consensus without action achieves nothing.

If the Government is genuinely serious on this issue, it should direct Nama to deliver its 20,000 homes as social housing.

Ashley Balbirnie is CEO of Focus Ireland

Irish Independent

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