Homeless urban families could rescue rural Ireland
Homeless families desperately seeking a fresh start could be resettled in declining rural areas and breathe new life into failing towns and villages nationwide, it's been claimed.
As homelessness and social housing waiting lists surge, and rents continue to rise in Dublin, Jim Connolly, founder of Rural Resettlement Ireland (RRI), says rural populations are rapidly disappearing and that large swathes of the countryside will effectively be green deserts.
Mr Connolly - who has helped 800 mostly Dublin families resettle in the countryside over the past two decades - says he has "zero faith" in current Government plans and argues that provincial life will die out without an influx of new people.
He is calling on the Government to move homeless families out of Dublin and into these areas to give them a second chance and at the same time help struggling communities survive.
"There are empty houses all over rural Ireland and we're losing services in the West all for the want of people while Dublin is bursting at the seams. It makes no sense whatsoever," he said. "Time is not our side," he added.
"There is massive potential to develop a pioneering social movement to repopulate rural areas with all the homeless people in Dublin," he told the Sunday Independent.
Last May a total of 565 families were counted living in homeless accommodation nationwide - 490 based in Dublin.
A total of 1,211 homeless children were also recorded with 90pc of them in Dublin.
From January to March this year, Dublin City Council (DCC) spent over €1.6m on hotels for homeless families. DCC has also announced an €18.5m shortfall in their homeless budget for 2015.
Over the past year, Rural Resettlement Ireland - a voluntary non-political organisation whose funding was cut in 2012 - has received applications from homeless families for the first time.
With limited resources, Mr Connolly, who lives in Co Clare, travels to Dublin to meet families to help them access social allowances, rent subsidies and rental records.
"The families come down and are straight away working with a development officer. They do not have to go on a waiting list and are automatically entitled to rent subsidy - without that it wouldn't work," he said.
However, he is concerned that this element will be removed under the new Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) scheme.
According to RRI, newly settled families bring massive knock-on advantages to rural areas battered by emigration and disappearing services.
"Depopulation by itself creates unemployment, so bringing people into an area actually sustains employment and gives opportunities to create new employment," he said, adding that farmers alone won't save communities.
"Farmers on their own are only a drop in the ocean compared to 1.5 million people who live in rural Ireland. They will thrive into the future because they grow food and export food but there won't be enough of them on their own to keep the services going, to keep schools going," he said.
Although Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan has introduced new measures focused on protecting one-, two-, three- and four-teacher schools - most of which are rural-based - Mr Connolly is concerned that these intentions will change if the demise of our rural population continues.
He is also apprehensive of Government plans to boost tourism in rural areas.
"Ireland ends at the M50 and any concerns for rural Ireland are just lip-service, this is a national crisis, they don't give a damn and the evidence is on the ground," he said.
Meanwhile, Labour TD Ann Phelan, Minister for State with special responsibility for rural affairs, admits that there is potential in repopulating rural Ireland with homeless families. "It would answer a lot of questions in that we would have a vibrant community and local schools and post offices would be supported.
"It would offer a good quality of life for people in and around the rural areas," Ms Phelan told the Sunday Independent.
But she admits that there are no current plans to fund the repopulation scheme.
"Over the coming months, local authorities will consider rural repopulation as part of the ongoing rural development pilot scheme but I don't actually have funding myself to give to a rural repopulation settlement in isolation," she said.