Thursday 22 February 2018

Living beneath the very bottom rung

Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

DIGGERS are expected to start breaking ground soon on the long-awaited new €200m DIT college at the 50-acre Grangegorman complex in north Dublin.

But 25 years ago, the former Victorian mental asylum -- then used as one of Ireland's biggest social dustbins -- was still in the process of being emptied.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, Grangegorman commonly held uncooperative wives and women who fell pregnant outside of marriage -- sectioned alongside mental health sufferers. A decade or two inside had them just as institutionalised.

In 1989, when I rented my first flat in a pre-63 terrace opposite the grey asylum's walls, the early morning wait for the number 10 on the North Circular could be an unsettling experience.

A procession of a dozen or so elderly bedsit dwellers would stream out of different flatland doorways in their pyjamas and wander up and down the street together. These were former lifelong patients who had been "released" into "community care." In essence, dumped into bedsits.

Their landlords would lose patience with their erratic behaviour and the former patients would be evicted.

To homelessness.

This is how the loftily named "community care" initiative of the late 1980s contributed to a surge in Dublin homelessness at a time when it was estimated that more than half of the capital's street dwellers had serious mental health issues.

Now there's a new cause -- a Government that won't act on the capital's home supply squeeze.

As well as raising property prices by 1pc per month, the shortage of family homes in Dublin is also hiking rents and causing a trickle-down shock which is knocking society's most vulnerable off the lowest property ladder rung of all.

While we hear lots about climbing the property ladder, we seldom hear about how you tumble down it and fall off the bottom rung.

At the top of our rent ladder are the blue-chip, foreign corporate tenants here on lucrative short-term contracts -- these take plush upmarket city homes.

Next come the two-job professional families. After these, come the single professionals sharing a house, then students sharing, next single professionals and single students in flats, then recent immigrants and refugees in flats and, last of all, society's most fragile -- those with addictions and/or mental health issues.

They are on welfare and in bedsits -- the last rung before the street. This is the tenancy property ladder.

With typical leases running for 12 months, the supply squeeze means that landlords not only have their eye on increased rents, but on a "better class" of tenant.

We've already heard how third-level students have had their worst year for finding accommodation.

The displaced students end up in the flats of the refugees, the latter find themselves in the dingier bedsits and the confused old guy who wanders the street in his pyjamas in the morning ends up sleeping there permanently.

To what degree is this happening?

In September, Sam McGuinness of Dublin Simon reported that the numbers of rough sleepers in the capital had surged by 88pc. In the second quarter of the year, nearly 10,000 people called the homeless helpline.

Our shortage of houses in Dublin is about more than families having to pay out more for their starter home -- or families having to rent a semi because they are priced out, or about students having to crash with their mates.

At the other end of the ladder, the greasy bottom rung, it's causing increasing numbers to take that most dangerous plunge to the street.

In Ireland, there are no more asylums. Perhaps this is why the homeless often break shop windows at this time of year -- to get them-selves institutionalised up in time for Christmas.

Threshold's Christmas appeal: LoCall 1890 43 44 45

Irish Independent

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