Monday 14 October 2019

Homelessness a problem that extends far beyond the capital

The Government's efforts to confront the growing homelessness crisis in Ireland are ham-fisted, ill conceived and too little, too late.

Homelessness has always been a problem in Ireland but it has spiralled out of control and it is now at epidemic levels since the economic crash. Charities and experts have been warning the government of the growing crisis for years but it is only now that Fine Gael and Labour appear to be taking any notice of the humanitarian disaster that is, quite literally, unfolding on their doorsteps.

While action is welcome, the pace and direction of the government's reaction leaves a lot to be desired.

With the Dáil in recess until late September, little concrete action will be taken until well into the autumn, leaving thousands of homeless people in limbo. Even then whatever action is taken will likely take weeks or months to implement, meaning many homeless people and families are facing into a long, cold and bleak winter on the streets.

An unfortunate aspect of the government's reaction to the crisis is that it seems almost entirely focussed on Dublin. Once again rural Ireland appears to be a secondary consideration for the government and civil servants in the capital.

A clear indication of this Dublin-centric attitude is in the government's suggestion last week that homeless people and families in Dublin may be resettled in rural areas.

The suggestion is laudable but it entirely negates, if not outright ignores, the needs of the homeless in rural Ireland.

Every county in Ireland already has massive housing lists with thousands of families waiting years for a suitable home and county councils struggling to meet the phenomenal demand. Many have been on these rural housing lists since well before the crash and even the boom and their numbers have swollen.

To suggest that families and people from Dublin, no matter how needy and many they are, would be able to leapfrog the local lists is remarkably insensitive to rural Ireland.

It also reinforces the strongly held opinion among many in rural counties that, for the government and the civil servants in Dublin, Ireland ends at the M50. The argument from Rural Resettlement Ireland that moving homeless families from urban areas to rural settings could help revitalise dying rural communities has some merit. However, the needs of these communities and the poor who already live in them should be addressed first.

Ireland is and always has been a charitable nation and no one wants to see any families or children suffer the awful indignity of homelessness and poverty. The suggested rural resettlement programme, rather than being a cogent and well thought out plan, appears more like a proposal slapped together by a government, department and minister desperate to appear as if they are taking action.

Homelessness is at crisis point. The families and children affected by it need more than empty rhetoric and the homeless outside Dublin need to be recognised not insulted.

A war of words has broken out between Labour TD Joanna Tuffy and homeless agencies including Focus Ireland.

Deputy Tuffy has criticised charities for not yet drawing down funding available to them to provide housing to those in need, yet the organisations have stressed the point that it isn't just plaing and simple funding, but loans, which must eventually be paid back.

The TD shared the view that given the expertise that these agencies have in the area of preventing homelessness, they should be doing more.

The problem is, however that they are dealing with the biggest homelessness crisis the country has ever seen and day after day more people are losing their accommodation and potentially being forced out onto the streets.

The problem is getting worse and isn't helped by the blame game.

Focus Ireland, in turn has shared the view that an increase in rent supplement levels would be a much more effective way to ease the burden and to quickly help more people.

If policy in this area doesn't change then those seeking rental properties will never be able to secure a home as they will never be able to afford the rent.

This isn't just a Dublin problem, or a city problem. Small towns across Ireland are also creaking under the weight of local authority housing lists where they number of applicants is likely to outnumber the amount of properties available for the next decade.

How have we gotten to this stage? A country that was building houses as quickly as Lego? All we did was build and build, to the point where we were awash with unfinished ghost estates and now we are told that we don't enough properties to house people.

It seems that the powers that be aren't actually addressing the reasons that people including families with young children and being left without a roof over their heads.

We are talking about people that never would have dreamed that they would be facing this reality not knowing where to go.

There is a certain amount of discretion within local authorities to increase the level of rent supplement yet the applicant has to go through a battle to get be approved and this is all dependent on whether a suitable private rental property is even available.