Wednesday 26 October 2016

What it really feels like when there's no room at the inn for a family

Published 25/12/2015 | 00:30

Illustration: Scratch.
Illustration: Scratch.

Imagine not being able to go home for Christmas. This is the reality facing more than 5,100 men, women and children who are stuck in emergency accommodation this year. They have no home to go to. 2015 has seen the numbers of people who are homeless grow month after month and the Simon Communities around the country have seen the impact on people trying to live their lives in really difficult situations.

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This includes 774 families with over 1,600 children trying to go about daily living; sleeping, eating, playing, doing homework, all in the one tiny space. This also includes almost 2,500 adults without dependents, some of whom are sharing dormitory-style accommodation or only have the guarantee of a bed on a night-by-night basis.

I visited an emergency accommodation unit that opened up as part of the 20-point action plan announced by Minister Alan Kelly last December. This was one room with more than 20 beds lining the walls, both sides, and some down the centre of the room. Here, people come to sleep, wash and eat. People can only come in the evenings and have to leave first thing in the morning.

The atmosphere is supportive and the staff are great, treating people with enormous empathy, dignity and respect. From here, they have helped people get back to work. But we question if this is the best we can offer people - a bed in a room with 20 others, with no privacy at all?

This has been an unprecedented year in terms of the scale of the housing and homeless crisis. Looking back, we can see clearly that the homelessness and housing crisis has continued to spiral out of control. Quarterly data from and the Private Residential Tenancies Board (PRTB) demonstrated that rents are continuing to rise at a time when the number of properties available is decreasing.

We heard repeated recommendations from the National Economic and Social Council for rent regulation and tenancy security. The draft National Risk Assessment Report highlighted the increase in property prices as a threat to the economy and the National Competitiveness Council specifically mentions high rents, the need for social housing and rising house prices.

This was a year when we heard a lot of commitments but we did not see enough action. The much promised social housing has not materialised. There is a minimum of 90,000 people on the social housing waiting list. There are long delays that are difficult to understand given the extent of the crisis. The Rent Stability measures introduced in November, which are welcome, still fall short of full rent certainty, leaving tenants in the private rental sector vulnerable.

But the situation is not hopeless. We know from experience that there is a way to solve long-term homelessness. It is called Housing First and it means supporting people to move away from rough sleeping and emergency accommodation and into housing as soon as possible. Once this is done, aids must be provided around things like living independently, healthcare issues, drug and alcohol use, and community integration.

The Simon Communities are currently supporting around 2,000 people in housing around the country. We must move away from emergency-led responses and start delivering homes for people trapped in emergency accommodation and prevent more people from becoming homeless. To do this, affordable housing supply must be addressed immediately. We must make better use of existing empty and void housing and State-owned property. The Social Housing Strategy commits to housing 32,000 households by 2017 and yet, at the time or writing, in 2015 house builds and acquisitions reported by the Department of Environment are 403. We need a comprehensive strategy for the private rental sector focusing on enhancing security of tenure and supporting landlords to remain in the sector, particularly those with distressed buy-to-let mortgages.

Despite many calls for an increase in Rent Supplement/HAP limits, there is still no movement on this from the Department of Social Protection or the Tánaiste Joan Burton. With the recent introduction of rent stability measures, now is the time to raise Rent Supplement limits to help keep people in their homes.

We need to change expectations - we need to expect that people will move on from homelessness to a home of their own. This must be the expectation of people who are homeless, the expectation of staff and volunteers, and the expectation of Government. We are told this is the case with the Government commitment to the Housing First approach. If this is the agreed expectation, then housing with the support needed must be provided for each and every person in emergency accommodation, sleeping rough on our streets, using squats and 'night cafés'.

We must find a way to do this, not just because it's the right thing to do and because people deserve better, but because the right to housing is one of the most fundamental rights which must be supported and protected.

Without shelter, safety and security, it is almost impossible to function, to get involved in your community and society. To go to work, to school or training. To go about family life. Just to function.

Yet, despite the odds, the people we meet every day do cope. They cope with huge courage and resilience but the price they pay in terms of stability, health and well-being is way too high and the long-lasting impact is just too great.

They are entitled to better.

Niamh Randall is national spokesperson for Simon

Irish Independent

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