'Thinking of others not having a Christmas tree in their own homes helps people focus' - Vacant homes initiative sees burst of activity over festive season
The councillor behind a new national empty houses database said that Christmas is making the public think about others who have no home over this festive season.
Mayo County Council's Director of Services Tom Gilligan told Independent.ie that around 16,000 people have contacted VacantHomes.ie since its launch last August.
"We are seeing increased activity in the numbers of submissions around the festive season. The public are thinking of other people, thinking of families who don't have a Christmas tree in their own living rooms, people on the streets during the cold weather," he said.
"It focuses the minds of people to help and the database gives everyone the opportunity to help. Noone wants to think of people living in hotels and bedsits, particularly around Christmas time."
VacantHomes.ie is a digital resource that invites submissions from local communities providing information on the empty properties in their area.
The data garnered from these anonymous submissions so that local authorities can get in touch with the owners and determine if the property can be re-used quickly and converted into social housing.
Borne out of the council’s commitment to the Government's vacant housing strategy, the initiative has seen a surge of interest from people across Ireland and all over the world.
"A lady from Australia who has property in Ireland with no intentions to return home to this country contacted us. She saw the work we were doing and said she wanted to get the property back into the market to help out with the crisis," said Gilligan.
"People from the UK and the USA who have properties in Ireland have contacted us because they want to try to help."
For the first time ever, the number of homeless children hit 3,333 last month, up from a previous high of 3,194 in October, according to the latest figures from the Department of Housing.
The figures, released by Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy last night, reveal that 1,530 families were officially homeless during the period of November 22 to 26.
The total number of homeless adults is also at a record high of 5,524. The figures include 2,437 people living in private emergency accommodation, such as hotels and B&Bs, as well as 2,974 in temporary accommodation.
Gilligan said that while he recognises that there's "a long way to go", things are starting to move in the right direction.
"The local authority in Louth have identified over 30 properties through VacantHomes.ie that are suitable for social housing. Fingal and Cork Co Council have credited the database with helping identify a number of properties also," he said.
The councillor addressed potential concerns from homeowners in terms of privacy if their home is being photographed and submitted.
"We want to assure people that the whole area of data protection is very important to us. If a property is entered on the database the public can't see that information," he said.
"In order for a property to be acted upon, it has to be verified that it is vacant. We carried out a data protection impact assessment and looked at the risk in relation to the website - it was one of the key things we looked into when we were setting this up."
Gilligan said that he sees Vacant Homes as an opportunity for people to get involved in tackling the homeless crisis at a local level.
"There are loads of these properties around - we recognised that utilising existing units was a way to increase the supply and provide home to people who have a need for them," he said.
"With these properties, the services are already in place. The existing infrastructure is in place."
In the New Year, VacantHouse.ie is developing an app for the database and is looking at the development of a "toolkit" in relation to vacant homes.