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Saturday 15 December 2018

Out in the cold: how far would you go to secure a home?

A backlash erupted after this week's shock ­suggestion by the Housing ­Agency chairman that many homeless people were 'gaming the system'. This may occur in a tiny minority of cases, experts say, but it's far from common.

Distortion in the system: In 2015, a new measure allocated half of all social housing in Dublin to the homeless, but was dropped 18 months later. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Distortion in the system: In 2015, a new measure allocated half of all social housing in Dublin to the homeless, but was dropped 18 months later. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Father Peter McVerry. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Niamh Randall from Simon Communities. Photo: Damian Eagers
Outgoing Housing Agency chief Conor Skehan. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
John Meagher

John Meagher

The interview hit a nerve. Conor Skehan, the chairman of the Government-initiated Housing Agency, was suggesting that some of the many thousands of homeless people in emergency accommodation were "gaming the system" in order to be moved up the list for social housing.

It was something that had long been rumoured but rarely articulated.

The backlash came immediately. Roughan Mac Namara, spokesperson for homeless charity Focus Ireland, said Skehan's words were an "attack on the 8,857 men, women and children who are homeless in Ireland".

On Tuesday, Dublin City Council's housing department sent an unequivocal tweet. "There is no evidence to support the assertion that homeless persons are 'gaming the system'. The issue is very complex with unique and often tragic individual situations. Applicants cannot declare themselves homeless - they must be assessed and accepted as homeless by DCC/DRHE."

Father Peter McVerry. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Father Peter McVerry. Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

And on Wednesday, housing minister Eoghan Murphy told reporters that his department had "no evidence… of people trying to game the system." He went on to say that he believed Skehan was highlighting "an unintended consequence of previous government policy".

"I think it's fair enough that he can do that. It's his role. It's not for me to criticise him for doing that. It's important that we have different voices in this debate."

And in fact, Fr Peter McVerry, the homelessness advocate and founder - in 1983 - of the Peter McVerry Trust, admits there is a likelihood that a small number are jumping the queue by declaring homelessness needlessly.

"No matter what system you have, whether it's a social welfare system or a tax system or a housing system, some people will try to scam the system," he says. "That's just a reality. I'm absolutely sure there are some families who are declaring themselves homeless when they may not actually be homeless in order to jump the queue. But that's a tiny, tiny percentage of those families who are actually declaring themselves homeless.

"The majority of families who declare themselves homeless are being kicked out of the private rental sector."

Increasing numbers of people, he insists, simply cannot afford the escalating rents in an environment where the asking price in Dublin for most property types is higher now than it was in the height of the boom. And all the indicators show that they will continue to climb upwards, even with controls to limit rent increases by 4pc every two years, in place.

Niamh Randall from Simon Communities. Photo: Damian Eagers
Niamh Randall from Simon Communities. Photo: Damian Eagers

There was some more - anecdotal and only partial - support to be found for Skehan's theory. Dublin-based Marie - "proud Roscommon woman (even now)" - tweeted that "people are putting it too strongly when they say he [Skehan] has not a scrap of evidence."

She wrote that in her role as a volunteer with St Vincent de Paul she regularly visited an "emergency homeless apartment block" and encountered people who "freely admit that they voluntarily left rented accommodation as they knew they have a good chance of being placed in this particular apartment block".

"It's a clean, very convenient location and their rent is low," she added. "Many of them have been there three or four years before being placed in a RAS/HAP [Rental Accommodation Scheme/Housing Assistance Payment] or council house." It's a sentiment echoed by another figure who volunteers with a homeless charity in Cork but opts to remain anonymous. "I know a lot of people have been jumping up and down about what Conor Skehan said but I think there is some truth to what he says," he tells Review.

"There's such a shortage out there when it comes to social housing that some people will try to leapfrog the queues and get prioritised first, and I know a handful of people whom I strongly suspect of declaring homelessness when they had other options, such as crashing with a friend or family member. Not ideal, obviously, but an option nonetheless.

"But I can honestly say I've never met a person or couple with children who would have willingly put themselves into emergency accommodation. I can't even begin to imagine how traumatic it must be, especially in the last few weeks around the run up to Christmas.

"But you do hear people who don't know anything about homelessness - or who've never volunteered on the ground - talk as if it's a very widespread occurrence. One of our local radio stations [96fm] did a poll this week asking if people thought the system was being gamed and 70pc responded to say that's what they believed."

In an interview with The Irish Times published on New Year's Day, Skehan suggested that the Government may have "unwittingly" encouraged people to exploit the housing allocations system by prioritising "self-declared homelessness" in the allocation of social housing.

In January 2015, the then minister for housing, Alan Kelly, ordered that 50pc of all social housing available in Dublin city and county was to be allocated to homeless people. It was a response taken in the wake of the outrage following the death of homeless man Jonathan Corrie, who had been sleeping rough near Leinster House.

Prior to this, 10pc of social housing was allocated to homeless individuals or families in Dublin city and 4-6pc in the rest of Dublin.

At the end of December 2014, 331 families were living in emergency accommodation, mostly in hotels and B&Bs. By the following December, there were 683 homeless families. That number has now reached 1,530.

In July 2016, the 50pc allocation order was dropped, amid concerns that general housing waiting list applicants were being disadvantaged. However, Dublin City Council continues to prioritise homeless applicants. Up to October 2017, 43pc of new tenancies in the city went to homeless people.

Tight-lipped

"We unwittingly created a problem by prioritising self-declared homelessness above all other types of housing need," Skehan claimed, "which created a distortion in the waiting list system and may have encouraged people to game the system."

Skehan did not return calls from Review by the time of time of going to print and remained tight-lipped as the controversy unfolded this week.

"It's not good enough for him to simply throw an unfounded allegation like that out there," debt activist and Irish Mortgage Holders' Organisation director David Hall says. "If you're going to say something like that, back it up. There may well be a small proportion of people 'gaming' the system, but there have been chancers since time began. Look at insurance fraud, for instance. But if it is happening, I'm certain it's at a tiny proportion."

Hall insists that Skehan has a track record of contentious comments about homelessness (see panel). Meanwhile, Eileen Gleeson [head of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive] was saying that volunteers giving food to homeless people was 'not helpful' and blaming 'bad behaviour' for people becoming homeless.

"It's the same narrative that is being pedalled time and again and I think it's outrageous," he says.

Niamh Randall, head of policy and communications for the Simon Community, says she has heard rumour and gossip over the years that some are declaring themselves homeless when they're not, but has not been given hard evidence.

"It is terribly traumatic for people to find themselves in emergency accommodation," she says, "not least because they have no way of knowing how long they will be in such a place. It's particularly hard for families and those with young children. So to have someone in his [Skehan's] position talking about gaming a system is not helpful at all.

"And the lack of humanity and empathy is really striking, too. We're talking about families in the midst of a really terrible situation who might struggle to see light at the end of the tunnel. We simply can't lose sight of the fact that we need a far greater supply of housing in order to address the crisis."

In Skehan's words

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Outgoing Housing Agency chief Conor Skehan. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
 

The chairman of the Housing Agency Conor Skehan is set to step down from the role this year - and the past few months of his tenure have been characterised by forthright, and frequently controversial, pronouncements. Here are a few of them:

* "Homelessness is a dreadful thing when it happens to someone, but it is a normal thing, it happens."

* "When we start to realise we are the same as all the other countries in Europe, we start to start to take the emotion out of this argument, because emotion is the enemy of this."

* "Baby boomers are part of a housing market distortion that's happening all over the western world. They have this enormous amount of money, they're very interested in property and they regard property as a particularly cosy thing to dip into."

* "The point that starts a crisis, and the thing that makes them worse, is data being produced by people who have skin in the game. We now have people saying we need up to 50,000 houses a year, and that's rubbish."

* "We appear to have over 70 homeless charities - every single one needs to have an auditor. Every one needs a premises, a company secretary, a pension scheme. We have a sector who are unaccountable in terms of what they produce, or appear to have excessive duplication."

* "I think people are coming around to the idea that renting isn't for losers, it's a valid choice for many people."

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