The homelessness crisis needs action now, not next year
Published 26/08/2015 | 02:30
Imagine having nowhere safe, warm and dry to sleep at night. Imagine living with your whole family in one hotel room with nowhere to cook, play and do your homework. Imagine sleeping on the couches and floors of friends and family, moving from week to week, not knowing where you will end up and where this crisis will lead. This is the reality facing thousands of people, families and children across Ireland every day.
No fewer than 3,285 people, 657 families and 1,383 children are stuck in emergency accommodation. There are 90,000 people on the social housing waiting list. Meanwhile, we are seeing the impact of rising rents and reduced housing supply every day - people on low incomes and those in receipt of rent supplement can no longer afford rental payments and are being pushed over the edge into homelessness.
The Simon Communities in Ireland work with over 6,000 people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness each year. We are working to improve the prospects for people trapped in this situation.
But to do so, we need significant and urgent government action. We are asking people to visit our website, www.simonhomelessforecast.ie, and send a letter to Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Joan Burton to bring this critical issue to the top of the Government's agenda. Urgent action must be taken because the outlook for people who are homeless in this country is bleak.
Last December, with emergency accommodation overflowing due to the high number of rough sleepers, the Government announced an action plan of 20 measures to combat homelessness. Since then, the number of people being pushed into homelessness has continued to increase and the demand for Simon's services has grown.
Government commitments are welcome but they are long-term. The Social Housing Strategy is one example which will take at least two years to begin to deliver.
It's unacceptable to expect people in emergency shelters now or sleeping on the street to wait at least two years before they can have a place to call home. We need immediate action.
Rising rents are contributing significantly to the numbers of people becoming homeless. The decision by An Tánaiste and the Department of Social Protection to leave rent supplement limits unchanged needs to be reversed.
Rent supplement levels must be increased, along with the introduction of rent certainty measures for tenants. Rent supplement levels have remained unchanged since June 2013, yet in the following two years, prices in the private rented sector increased by 18pc. To prevent more people from becoming homeless, we must address the situation where people are, in some cases, facing 50pc rent increases - and possibly the same next year.
Private rented supply is now at the lowest level in a decade. People who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads are being excluded from the private rented sector and prevented from competing in the open market in a fair manner.
We know from experience that the solution is to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place. When it does occur, we need to ensure that people can find a home as quickly as possible, with the support services they need to stay in that home.
This Housing First approach is working in Simon Communities all around the country. Emergency accommodation is not the answer to homelessness; it is a temporary response and should only be used in an emergency.
People end up staying in such accommodation for far too long, which can have a devastating impact on their well-being. We know this is damaging for adults, but it can have a profound effect on children. Children who experience homelessness have a greater chance of experiencing it again as adults.
I was speaking to a man recently who is in emergency accommodation with his two children and he is absolutely devastated that the worst thing that happened to him as a child is now happening to his children.
People need homes. It is unforgivable that there are local authority houses and state-owned properties lying empty around the country when there are people sleeping on the street or stuck in emergency accommodation. The Government needs to introduce measures to ensure that such empty properties are put back into use immediately. The current system is scandalous where housing remains vacant while maintenance work is undertaken, which can take months to complete. Idle homes won't solve this dilemma.
Local Authorities could partner with housing associations like the Simon Communities to turn these properties around at a much quicker rate. That is the kind of emergency response that we need.
Current government responses to this crisis are inadequate. If commitments in the Social Housing Strategy are met for this year alone, just 17pc of people on the social housing waiting list will be housed.
People who are homeless are being failed yet again by the State. The State has failed people who have experienced the trauma of losing their homes and the trauma of sleeping on the street. For the State to say to people that there is no prospect of getting a home any time soon is just not good enough. People need homes now and people need action now.
Homelessness destroys lives and is causing untold damage to people, families and children. It's getting harder and harder to ensure that the people who need us have the support they require. The outlook for people experiencing homelessness - and those on the very edge - must change now.
The Simon Communities' letter to An Taoiseach and An Tánaiste can help to improve that outlook. They have the power to make the changes needed. We can use our collective voice to stand with people who have been let down for far too long. Please join us by sending your letter and help end this crushing homeless and housing crisis.