'People sleep in cars, vans and sheds' - hidden homelessness is on the rise
Soda-surfing, squatting and sleeping in cars and sheds are all on the rise in rural Ireland as increasing rents and homelessness spread beyond the main cities.
Housing charities have noted a worrying trend in provincial towns but say it is often hidden from both public and official view.
"Outside the metropolitan areas, certain local authorities don't see themselves as having any kind of homeless problem," said Threshold CEO John-Mark McCafferty.
"If someone is homeless, they often go to the nearest city. In an isolated area there is a challenge in interfacing with a local authority and a lack of expectation that people will be supported locally.
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"But if this crisis has taught us anything, it's that anyone can be at risk of homelessness. It can happen in Gweedore, it can happen in Cavan. Lack of security of tenure is a fact of life. It's just more hidden in rural areas."
Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers sees the problem in her native Mayo. "I didn't have anyone coming to me saying they were homeless until a year-and-a-half ago," she said.
"But then two years ago you could rent a three-bedroom house in Castlebar for €800, and now it's €1,100.
"A lot of people are working but there's a gap they fall into. They don't qualify for a council house because they earn too much but they don't earn near enough to get a mortgage. We have a lot of young professionals living at home when they need to get on with their lives. That's a hidden homelessness."
Galway Simon is encountering similar problems. "People have resorted to sleeping in sheds, squats, cars, vans, involuntary sharing and couch surfing. In some rural areas there's not many services," said CEO Karen Golden.
Simon Community head of policy Wayne Stanley said that situation was replicated across the country.
He said affordable accommodation was now very scarce in many larger rural towns.
"For the first time, we're seeing no affordable properties in Sligo, Galway or Athlone," he said.
"Outreach teams are beginning to see squatting again."
Dublin is still the epicentre of the housing and homelessness crisis with 7,291 of the 10,448 registered homeless concentrated there.
The Dublin and national figures fell slightly last month but they increased in 11 other counties and showed no change in six more.
Meanwhile, the housing waiting list nationally stands at 68,693 households, representing many times that number of individual people.
That was a welcome drop of 3,165 on the 2018 figures but charities worry that inroads made into the list may come to a halt as the population grows and regional rents rise.
Rents nationally rose 8.2pc last year, driven mainly by increases outside of Dublin. Rents in Galway, Kerry, Meath, Offaly, Monaghan, Sligo, Waterford and Westmeath all rose by more than 10pc.
In Dublin today, demonstrators from the Protest Against Homelessness/Less Talk More Action group will gather at the Garden of Remembrance and march down O'Connell Street.
Activists will be at the GPO to help people complete RFA2 forms to get them on the supplementary electoral register, a reminder that housing and homelessness will be key issues in the fast-approaching general election.
The Department of Housing did not comment but Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has repeatedly said his 'Rebuilding Ireland' housing programme is making progress.