Saturday 24 February 2018

Homelessness Crisis: 'I was standing outside my home, crying. It really did break me when I had to leave it'

It is the greatest crisis to hit the country since the banking crash and the homeless statistics speak for themselves. But it is the heartbreaking stories behind the shameful facts and figures that tell us most.

Stock photo
Stock photo
Notice: Rachel Mcguinness and her daughter Courtney.
Keys to his own door: Dean managed to find an apartment in recent weeks in a project in Macroom run by voluntary housing agency Clúid.
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Tamara Kearns remembers the precise moment when she and her family became homeless. It was 11 o'clock at night and she was waiting outside her house in North Dublin for her husband to come in a taxi to pick her up along with their possessions.

"I am a strong-willed person, but at that moment I was standing outside my home, crying," says Tamara. "It really did break me when I had to leave there."

Tamara sent her two young children to their grandparents to stay the night so that they would be sheltered from this ordeal.

The couple's first destination was a storage unit, where the family possessions were to be kept, and they went on from there to stay for a time in the Bewley's Airport Hotel.

They were surrounded by cheerful holidaymakers going off on their travels, but the family could not even afford the breakfast.

Tamara, whose husband was working at the time, had to leave her home because the couple could no longer afford the rent and other bills.

An alarming number of ordinary families and individuals are now being forced on to the street and into emergency accommodation in this way, because they literally cannot afford a roof over their heads. There are now close to 6,000 people in Ireland - including men, women and children - who are classified as homeless, and the figures have shot up by 50pc over the past year.

Most alarming of all is that the number of families with children being left without a home has rocketed - figures this week showed that there are 884 families in emergency accommodation and this includes just under 2,000 children.

The number of homeless children has risen by more than 100pc in a year.

With these shocking figures, it is hardly surprising that the Fine Gael slogan "Keep the recovery going" crashed with a hollow thud in many places during the election campaign.

The haphazard approach to the housing crisis has been penny-wise and pound-foolish.

We now have the bizarre situation where councils are paying vast sums to hotel and bed-and-breakfast owners to keep people off the street.

One welfare officer who works in housing estimates the cost of this hotel/B&B accommodation at about €30,000 per year per family.

One of the noticeable trends of recent months is that there are more people who actually have jobs now being forced out of rented accommodation and into homelessness. "It is not just people who are on social welfare who are homeless - there is also a growing number on low-pay and zero-hours contracts," says Niamh McDonald of the Irish Housing Network.

"Rents are getting beyond their reach in Dublin at the moment, and because there is such a shortage of supply of rented property, homelessness is spreading to the country as well, to counties such as Kildare, Wicklow and Wexford.

Simon Brooke of the voluntary housing agency Clúid agrees.

"There is a new kind of homelessness affecting families, which is purely being caused by people not being able to afford rent," says Brooke.

"Families used to be able to afford rents because they received rent supplements, but now that is not enough and they are being priced out of the market."

Hotels and bed-and-breakfasts may be good for a holiday, but they are no place to house a family for more than a few days.

"It was strange walking into the hotel with my husband in his work uniform and my daughter in her school uniform with our suitcase and buggy," says Tamara.

When she was housed in the airport hotel, Tamara could not cook. She had to sneak in a microwave oven so that she could heat her baby's bottles, and she hid food in a suitcase.

"It's an awful feeling sitting in a hotel room when you have no other place to go. You feel very isolated."

Tamara and her family moved on to other emergency accommodation before she was eventually housed in Coolock.

Talking to many of those who have been through the ordeal of homelessness, it is difficult not to be struck by how often it's far removed from the stereotypical image of the rough-sleeping desperado, addicted to drink or drugs.

"The traditional profile of the homeless would have been of single people with a history of care, prison, family breakdown and addiction. That has changed," says Aideen Hayden, chairwoman of Threshold.

The downward spiral into homelessness can begin in many different ways to all sorts of people.

Dean, who didn't wish to give his surname, originally worked as a self-employed IT consultant living in a house in Kanturk, Co Cork, and was making a good living.

"My business was going well - it was business-to-business IT. I never had to rely on social welfare before in my life, or anything like that."

He says his whole world fell apart in May 2013, when he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.

As Dean underwent chemo and radiation treatment in the Mercy Hospital in Cork, his income collapsed and he had to give up his rented house.

He moved in with his father to be close to the hospital, but when his father died, that house was sold and Dean was left homeless.

Earlier this year, he had to stay in emergency accommodation in a bed-and-breakfast in Mallow.

Dean never imagined before in his life that he would ever be in this situation.

"When I was made homeless, I didn't know where I was going to end up. It was a nice B&B, but it was just one room with an en suite shower and toilet, and a TV.

"I had to bring my laundry to my mum's house, and I couldn't do any cooking.

"I was walking into Mallow town to pick up a sandwich from Tesco for lunch. My day consisted of doing my best to keep my bloody sanity, and making phone calls to try to find somewhere to live."

Dean is fortunate that he managed to find an apartment in recent weeks in a project in Macroom run by the voluntary housing agency, Clúid. The agency took over a luxury apartment scheme, The Granary, and has turned it into social housing.

For other homeless people, the ordeal can go on for much longer.

Rachel McGuinness, her daughter Courtney and son Matthew now live day-to-day in a bed-and-breakfast on the Coast Road in Clontarf after she and other families were forced to leave a hostel in the city centre.

Earlier, she had to leave private rented accommodation in the East Wall area after a bank took over her house, and she was behind with rent.

Rachel was given notice to leave, but hung on in her home for three months. Then, she spent days "couch-surfing" with friends before moving into a hostel.

"I just can't afford the rents any more in houses.

"They are looking for mad money - over €1,600 per month.

"The hardest part is feeding your kids, because you can't cook in the bed-and-breakfast. I bring them to a friend's house or their nanny's, and I cook there."

Those living in emergency accommodation in apartment schemes, hotels and hostels find it hard to escape the stigma of homelessness, and in some cases they are treated like second-class citizens.

In many hotels or apartments, they are not allowed to talk to other residents, their children are banned from playing with the children of other guests, and they cannot have visitors.

There are frequent complaints about petty rules and restrictions on their movements.

In one reported case, a father living in emergency accommodation was not allowed to receive visits from his grown-up children.

Niamh McDonald of the Irish Housing Network describes one emergency accommodation block where children of the homeless are not to play in the garden, and windows are nailed shut.

"You wouldn't be allowed to go into your neighbour's home for a cup of tea. It is like a glorified prison."

The extremes of the housing crisis have spilled out into schools, where teachers in certain parts of Dublin have noticed that a growing number of their pupils are at risk of losing their homes because of rent.

At a recent teachers' conference, TJ Clare, a primary teacher in Blanchardstown, Dublin 15, raised the issue of children falling asleep at their desks, because they were living in cramped conditions with parents and siblings and not eating or sleeping properly.

Tamara Kearns says a major issue for homeless families is that the accommodation they move to is often miles away from a child's school.

"My daughter had to move school three times. When we were homeless, it affected her education because at the time her school was far from where we lived. Fortunately she was young, but you can only imagine the effect on older children."

Mike Allen, head of advocacy at Focus Ireland, says living in emergency accommodation is a miserable existence for families. "Often there is nowhere for the children to play and nowhere to do homework.

"There is a myth that people choose homelessness, because they see it as a path to better housing. The reality is that they will do anything to keep out of emergency accommodation."

Allen says we are now seeing the extreme form of a housing crisis that is affecting society at large, with tens of thousands of families struggling to pay rents.

"The vast majority of these families come from the private rented sector, and there are a mixture of different causes.

"The crisis is caused by rents, and lack of availability. Tenants can be forced out when individual landlords sell the property, or when a large-scale landlord is bought out by a vulture fund that is now trying to sell up properties."

Erica Fleming, a working mother who lives in emergency accommodation, brought home the stark reality of the crisis when she described her life in the RTÉ video, My Homeless Family earlier this year.

She says that since she made the video, the situation has only got worse. She blames Social Protection Minister Joan Burton for making the crisis worse by cutting the rent allowance.

She is tired of hearing politicians telling her that there are no quick fixes. "I know there are no quick fixes, but they are not coming up with any fixes at all. I am tired of hearing them say that they can't magic up houses.

"I don't expect them to be Harry Potter, but I do expect them to come out with realistic goals."

5 things  the new government could do to tackle crisis

Kim Bielenberg

1 Set a target to encourage the construction of 25,000 new homes per year and stick to it.  Around 6,000 of these homes will have to be social housing. Simon Brooke of the housing agency Clúid says the Government should get started with the ambitious social-housing strategy devised by acting minister Alan Kelly (below). Brooke says there is a need for a national social-housing agency to build housing on behalf of local authorities. The council would still own the homes and be involved in planning, but a national agency could work more quickly in getting them built.

2 Offer incentives to builders to increase supply of houses, but these should be heavily targeted at lower-cost housing in certain areas. Brooke says: "This incentive could be a reduction of VAT or development levies. It should be a short-term measure for two years to kick-start construction. You wouldn't have it in every area, because in some parts of Dublin, developers can make profits without incentives."

3 Open up more boarded properties. Erica Fleming, a homeless mother, says the Government should move more quickly to open up boarded-up properties, known as "voids". There are many disused council flats and apartments that are awaiting renovation. Fleming says she has pointed out many homes that are lying empty, and more needs to be done to open them up for tenants.

4 Protect tenants when properties are sold. At present, hundreds of tenants are under threat of eviction because of the involvement of vulture funds, who want to sell properties. "Under current legislation, if a landlord is selling a dwelling, they are allowed to get repossession of a home. You could amend legislation so that if a landlord is selling a property, a tenant would not automatically lose their home," says Brooke.

5 Increase the number of social-housing units provided by NAMA. The state agency is funding the construction of 20,000 new houses - and 10pc of these will be for social housing. Brooke says that the number of these social housing units should be increased to 20pc.

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