Sunday 18 August 2019

Complexities of homeless crisis laid bare in stark facts and figures

Opposition silent as statisticians seek to explain the plight of hundreds of families, writes Philip Ryan

Shades of opinion: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy — housing will be a key issue at the next general election. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Shades of opinion: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy — housing will be a key issue at the next general election. Photo: Justin Farrelly

There was an eerie silence from the Opposition benches last week following the publication of two reports on the challenges faced by agencies responsible for housing people who present as homeless.

The political obsession with statistics was nowhere to be found. Politicians who are generally very keen to pontificate about facts and figures seemed to have taken the week off.

One report came from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) and the other from the Homelessness Inter-Agency Group. Both aimed to give Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy a clearer picture (read: political cover) of the reasons behind the State's failure to resolves the homelessness crisis.

First off, it is worth noting that homelessness is not an issue that can be fully evaluated using facts and figures. Each case involves a unique set of circumstances. Reducing people in vulnerable circumstances to a number demeans their situation.

Behind each number there is a face - in 3,689 cases it is currently a child's face, which in itself paints a vivid picture. Government agencies love to crunch numbers. There are office blocks of civil servants who spend their days writing reports and memos which reduce people to facts and figures.

Politicians are also obsessed with numbers, especially in relation to health, housing and homelessness. The Department of Housing has naturally taken a keen interest in numbers since it was established.

It is not just homelessness. Only two weeks ago, the civil servants produced a report which found the Government had been overstating the amount of new houses built in recent years.

Since taking office, the Minister for Housing has listened to civil servants and local authority chiefs tell him about the difficulties involved in housing people who present as homeless.

It has mostly been anecdotal evidence, passing comments by senior officials in hushed tones about people taking advantage of the system. There has been a drip-feed of some of this information into the media.

Murphy has also taken the step of removing certain categories of people from data - after all, he's just as obsessed about statistics as his Opposition counterparts.

As mentioned, statistics shouldn't be allowed mask human realities. However, some statistics do give us a glimpse into the grim realities.

For instance, the DRHE report found 55 lone parents presented as homeless last year with four or more children. Another 88 single parents presented with three children and 170 had two children. The vast majority (95pc) of cases handled by the agency involved families. We don't know their names or stories. We never will. All we can do is hope their situation gradually improves with State support.

Another area of the report which got no attention last week showed the number of non-EU nationals presenting as homeless. The data shows more than one in five (21pc) families presenting as homeless were non-EU nationals who "may not have been entitled to housing support", according to the DRHE report.

The Homeless Inter-Agency Group also stated: "In many cases, individuals without an entitlement to housing supports can spend significant time in emergency accommodation with no option to move on."

These families are stuck in limbo - they are not entitled to social housing or State support so they remain in emergency accommodation.

There is also confusion over which arm of the State is responsible for housing these families and the report urges greater cooperation between the Department of Housing and Department of Justice.

One of the other key findings of the report was the number of people who turned down housing assistance payments (HAP) as an option for exiting emergency accommodation. HAP is a system whereby the State pays private landlords to house people who do not have the resources to do so. More than €220m has been spent on this since it was introduced in 2014.

The DRHE report found that last year 343 families chose to stay in emergency accommodation (hotels, B&Bs or a homelessness hub) rather than accept a tenancy through the HAP scheme.

In March, only 12 of the 750 families in emergency accommodation accepted a HAP scheme tenancy. The DRHE said this is an "extremely low" level of take-up of the scheme.

"It is understandable that many households' preference is to exit to what is perceived as a 'local authority home', it is simply not possible given the current constraints on the supply of social housing," the DRHE report stated.

It also found there is a "nervousness" of being housed in the private rental sector by those who present as homeless. Of course, some of the accommodations being offered are not suitable for the needs of those who find themselves and their families homeless.

There is also a belief among they will be bumped down the list for a local authority home if they accept private rental accommodation.

So instead, they stick it out in hotels and B&Bs with their families until a property becomes available. Those families can spend up to 15 months in cramped conditions with their children while they wait for a local authority home. If they are willing to be housed under the HAP scheme, they could get the key to their new home within five months.

The report also found almost one in five people offered social housing turned down the offer of a State-owned house or apartment.

In 2017, 595 offers of permanent social housing were made to people in emergency accommodation. The report found 483 were accepted while 112 were turned down. This included 85 families.

The Homelessness Inter-Agency Group suggested the Government should withdraw emergency accommodation from people who turn down HAP. The Minister for Housing was quick to reject this suggestion.

Homelessness advocate Fr Peter McVerry said some people are refusing on "spurious grounds and that gets highlighted in media - 'the back garden isn't big enough for the trampoline' - but in many cases there may be very good reasons".

"Most of the families have been evicted from the private sector. They don't want to back there, they were told to leave by a landlord, now they're told to go back."

Sunday Independent

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