Friday 17 January 2020

Thousands of homeless use post office as mail address

Alarming new figures shed light on number of 'couch-surfers' staying with friends or family

MIKE ALLEN: Hidden homeless figures high for small towns. Photo: Damien Eagers
MIKE ALLEN: Hidden homeless figures high for small towns. Photo: Damien Eagers
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Almost 3,000 homeless people around the country use a local post office as their home address to receive mail because of the scale of Ireland's housing crisis.

New data reveals the spread of hidden homelessness across the country, with many people unaccounted for in official figures because they stay with friends and family.

The statistics show higher volumes of people in rural areas using post offices as an alternative because they have no home address.

The figures, released to the Sunday Independent by An Post, show 2,803 homeless adults have registered a post office as their mailing address.

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The figures have been made available for the first time since the service was created for homeless people last April.

Many of the registrations are in towns outside of the major cities, highlighting how homelessness is part of every community in Ireland. The figures show that there are homeless people in every county using a post office as their fixed postal address.

More than 1,400 adults in Dublin have registered for An Post's Address Point service, giving them a fixed address to receive post and access essential services.

Homeless people in Dublin account for just over half (51pc) of all those using a post office as a permanent mail address. This ratio is out of kilter with the Department of Housing figures which show two-thirds (67pc) of the country's homeless people are concentrated in the capital.

Homeless charity Focus Ireland said the anomaly sheds light on the scale of hidden homeless people living in rural communities.

The most recent Department of Housing figures, released last Friday, showed there were 6,696 adults and 3,752 children homeless across the country in November.

Focus Ireland director of advocacy Mike Allen said: "The fact they [An Post] are getting so many people who are not in Dublin means they are picking up a phenomenon of people who are homeless but not officially homeless outside of Dublin. You would expect a much higher concentration of people in Dublin from the official figures.

"People who are hidden homeless aren't officially in emergency services but they are couch-surfing, staying with a friend for a few days and then staying with another friend for a few days.

"Because there are fewer homeless services outside of Dublin, people who effectively have no home are more likely to be hidden homeless and couch-surfing in a small town rather than go down to the St Vincent de Paul where there may be a stigma in being seen there.

"It indicates a different pattern of homelessness than there is in urban areas."

According to An Post's data, 1,367 people outside Dublin are homeless and using a post office as their personal mail address.

Almost one in five of the country's 1,100 post offices are being used in this way by homeless people, demonstrating the homeless crisis is affecting communities everywhere.

An Post Retail managing director Debbie Byrne said An Post began offering the service last April. Since then, it has been providing a secure mailing address or letter collection point for individuals and families throughout the year.

"We are all so pleased to see it making a real difference to people's lives - using our expertise, national reach and a deeply connected, community-conscious body of staff and postmasters as a force for good," Ms Byrne said.

The figures show high demand for the service in Cork, where there are 231 users, Galway (194), Kildare (119) and Wexford (104). While every other county has fewer than 100 people using a post office as a mailing address, there are alarming numbers of homeless people accessing the service in rural areas.

In 11 counties, there are more homeless people registered for the An Post service than there are staying in emergency accommodation, according to the Department of Housing's most recent figures.

In Wexford, 104 people have registered a post office as their mailing address. However, the government data shows 37 people there were linked in with housing services in November. In Wicklow, 89 people are registered with post offices but 28 people were in emergency accommodation.

In the north-west (Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo), 79 people have registered to use a post office as their fixed address, 12 more than the number of people in emergency accommodation in November. Carlow, Cavan, Laois, Longford, Mayo and Roscommon also have more homeless people using post offices to access mail than those recorded as being in emergency accommodation.

Another homeless charity, Simon Communities in Ireland, said the number of people using a post office to receive mail tallies with what it has seen around the country.

It said schemes similar to An Post's initiative could be used to deliver improved access to services for homeless people.

"The numbers mirror the experiences of Simon Communities across the country as they show that homelessness is a national problem. Those experiencing homelessness are taking up all useful offers of support and working hard to find their way out of homelessness," a spokesman added.

An Post said it works with a number of charities to provide its mail service in post offices for those affected by homelessness and living in emergency accommodation.

A spokeswoman for An Post said it is free to register for the service. She added that it "generates a personal address based on the person's choice of local post office to be their mail collection point" to help arrange medical appointments, deal with children's schools, apply for jobs, or to keep in touch with family and friends. "What is surprising is the number of registrations in towns outside the major cities and urban centres, showing the level of hidden homelessness around the country," she said.

The Department of Housing said the Government has prioritised addressing homelessness by boosting funding to €166m in the next year. A spokesman said it plans to increase the stock of social housing by 50,000 homes by 2021. "In the first nine months of last year, 4,391 adults and their associated dependants exited homelessness into homes. This is a 17pc increase on the numbers recorded at the same point in 2018," he added.

Focus Ireland said the initiative makes it easier for homeless people to access basic services where it is necessary to provide a fixed address in advance. Mr Allen added that he hopes the service will help people register for the upcoming general election.

"Up to now, if you don't have a fixed address or live in emergency accommodation it is possible to vote but it is very difficult. Using this service should allow people to register to vote, receive their polling documentation, and participate in an election in a way that has not been possible before," he said.

Sunday Independent

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