While working as a priest in the Inner City in Dublin, Fr Peter McVerry SJ encountered some homeless children and opened a hostel for them in 1979. He subsequently opened fourteen more hostels, three drug treatment centres and over one hundred apartments. The organisation he started has now been renamed Peter McVerry Trust. He has written about his experience in a book, The Meaning is in the Shadows. His most recent publication is Jesus – Social Revolutionary?
For several years now, Ireland has had a homelessness crisis. Unfortunately, this crisis was not adequately addressed. I believe it is now out of control.
There have been four changes in the problem of homelessness over the past couple of years.
- Firstly, the number of homeless people has been increasing rapidly. Since November 2014, an additional 1,569 beds have been opened (a 71% increase) and yet 91 people were counted as sleeping rough in December 2015. A further 61 spent the night in the Merchant’s Quay Night Cafe. The huge number of extra beds being provided is not even keeping pace with the increase in homelessness.
- Secondly, the number of families becoming homeless is at record level. In 2012, an average of seven or eight families a month were becoming homeless. In 2013, this had increased to 20 families a month. In 2014, it had increased further to 40 families a month. In the first six months of 2015, it averaged 60 families a month and in July to October 2015, it had increased further to 73 families per month.
Families are being accommodated in hotel bedrooms: one family, consisting of both parents, a 20-year old boy, an 18-year old boy and three younger children all living in one room. They have no facilities for cooking, so dinner comes from a take-away; no facilities for washing clothes, so they have to go the launderette to wash the children’s clothes.
- Thirdly, the profile of homeless people has changed. The public perception of homeless people is of young people with serious addiction or mental health problems. However, the majority of people becoming homeless today are coming from the private rented sector, either because they cannot afford the increasing rents being demanded, or because the financial institutions are repossessing the landlords’ properties that are in mortgage arrears. These people have only one problem: they do not have the money to pay for their own accommodation. Many have been renting for years without any problem, until the rent increased beyond their means; others are working and continue working while living in homeless shelters. They are of all ages – a 50-year old man, who worked all his life until the recession came, who has reared his children, but who recently separated from his wife, was given a bed in a homeless hostel full of drug-users.
However, the stigma of being homeless attaches to all homeless people. Many believe that they are a problem, or have caused problems to others, and so are responsible for their own homelessness. Parents talk of the shame they feel at being homeless, the sense that they are inadequate parents and have failed their children. Some families will not register as homeless for this reason. They find alternative accommodation; some families will split up, the father and some of the children going to live with his parents, the mother and the rest of the children going to live with her mother; some families have put their children into care; others sleep in their car for weeks on end.
- Fourthly, homelessness is now accompanied by hopelessness. People see no way out. The two normal exits out of homelessness are into social housing or the private rented sector. However, there is very little social housing available and it is almost impossible to get affordable private rented accommodation. Many of those who come to me are seriously depressed, sometimes suicidal; they see no future except living in hostels by night, and walking the streets all day. They tell me they cannot go on living like this, year after year.
How did we get into this mess? About 25 years ago, this country began to reduce its commitment to providing social housing. In 1975, 8,800 social housing units were built. In 1985, 6,500 social housing units were built. But from 1995 to 2008, an average of 1,790 net additional social housing units were created per year, the lowest level ever in the history of the state. In 2014, a grand total of 214 social housing units were built; in the first six months of 2015, only 20 social housing units were built! In one typical local authority area, there are 4,000 households on the social housing waiting list and 43 social housing units are being built. The chronic shortage of social housing is the primary reason why we are in this situation. As a result, households on low income are forced to find accommodation in the private rented sector, which cannot cope with the demand. Today, with increasing rents and a reducing number of rental accommodation units available, more and more households are being pushed into homelessness.
What needs to be done? There are a number of different departments and agencies who have a key responsibility for addressing the problem, including the Department of Environment, the Department of Finance, the Department of Social Protection, the Local Authorities, and the Voluntary Housing Associations. The Taoiseach needs to call an emergency meeting of all the relevant bodies, agree a plan, and get everyone working to implement the plan. What we have seen in recent months is the Department of Environment arguing with the Department of Finance over the issue of rent certainty, the Department of Social Protection arguing with the voluntary housing associations over the issue of rent supplement, the Department of the Environment arguing with some of the local authorities. If 195 nations can agree on a plan to combat climate change, surely a few politicians can agree on how to combat homelessness!
The plan in my view would include:
- Most importantly, a commitment by Government to return to building social housing units as rapidly as possible. The Government’s social housing strategy, while hoping to provide 35,000 social housing units over the next five years, still relies on the private rented sector to accommodate 75,000 low income households. Without a rapid expansion of the social housing sector, the problem of homelessness will continue to grow.
- Legislation to prevent the financial institutions evicting tenants when re-possessing landlords’ properties which are in mortgage arrears.
- Legislation to compulsory purchase houses and apartments which are lying empty and where the owner has no plans to use them for accommodation.
- Rent supplement being increased to reflect the increased rents being demanded.
- Re-introduction of bedsits for a limited period, provided they meet certain standards and are used to accommodate homeless individuals.
- An expansion of the mortgage to rent scheme.
- Rapid introduction of as many modular units as are required to get homeless families out of hotel bedrooms and B&Bs.
There are five basic human rights: the right to adequate food, the right to healthcare, the right to education, the right to work and the right to a home. They are basic rights, because without any one of them, it is very difficult to live a fulfilled and dignified life. But the right to a home is the most basic of all because without a suitable home, people will not be able to eat properly, their health will deteriorate and they will find it almost impossible to access education, training or employment.
If Government’s primary role is to ensure that the basic needs of all its citizens are met, then the provision of affordable housing is its highest priority.
To members of the public with regard to helping over Christmas, there is little to be done; perhaps people could be conscious of how difficult and depressing it is to be homeless, especially over Christmas. You could try have a word with some of them, rather than just passing by.